Cruise Nears Approval for Mass Production of Steering-Wheel-Less Robotaxis

In a major step toward the future of autonomous transportation, Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors (GM), is inching closer to securing regulatory approval for mass-producing its autonomous vehicles, designed without a steering wheel or pedals. This announcement was made by Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt during an investor conference, where he shared insights into the company’s groundbreaking developments.

Breaking Regulatory Barriers

Cruise has been eagerly anticipating an exemption from the stringent motor vehicle safety standards imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which mandates the inclusion of a traditional steering wheel and pedals in all vehicles. However, this requirement contradicts Cruise’s vision of an entirely autonomous vehicle. The company has been awaiting this regulatory change to kickstart mass production.

While NHTSA has not yet officially granted Cruise’s petition or set a deadline for a decision, there are expectations that federal safety regulators will unveil new rules in September, potentially revolutionizing the autonomous vehicle industry. If these rules come into effect, Cruise will be one step closer to its goal of deploying tens of thousands of its purpose-built autonomous vehicles on the streets of major U.S. cities.

Amazon-owned Zoox, which has been developing a similar autonomous vehicle, could also benefit from these regulatory changes.

Cruise’s Pioneering Vehicle: The Origin AV

Cruise introduced the Origin Autonomous Vehicle (AV) in early 2020, designed for both autonomous ride-hailing and delivery services. The GM-backed company has ambitious plans to deploy thousands of Origins across U.S. cities. Still, the prolonged regulatory process has hindered its mass production efforts.

Cruise’s case highlights the need for a regulatory shift to accommodate steering-wheel-less autonomous vehicles, as NHTSA currently grants only 2,500 exemptions annually. Legislation is underway to increase this number to 25,000, which could provide more flexibility for autonomous vehicle manufacturers like Cruise.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite its progress, Cruise has faced challenges in demonstrating the safety of its vehicles. Recently, one of its test vehicles veered off the road and collided with a small electrical building in Austin. Due to the absence of a steering wheel, emergency personnel faced difficulties in moving the vehicle promptly. Cruise attributed the incident to a system fault during testing, which led the vehicle to shift out of park.

Moreover, Cruise has faced scrutiny in San Francisco, where it operates robotaxis. Incidents involving stalled vehicles causing traffic disruptions and blocking emergency responders have raised concerns. The California Department of Motor Vehicles even asked Cruise to reduce its fleet size after a vehicle collided with a fire truck, injuring a passenger.

Looking Ahead: Road Safety and Cost Efficiency

During the investor event, Vogt emphasized the importance of advancing autonomous technology while acknowledging that, like any pioneering technology, mistakes might occur. He expressed concerns that excessive pushback against robotaxis could impede technological advancements that enhance road safety.

Beyond safety, Vogt highlighted the economic benefits of Cruise’s Origin. Simplified sensor systems, compute technologies, and software contribute to lower upfront costs for the vehicle compared to traditional cars. Additionally, Cruise is developing custom in-house chips that reduce complexity and costs. These advancements position the Origin as a cost-effective solution with an extended lifespan, potentially lasting one million miles.

As Cruise aims for mass production, it plans to scale rapidly, aiming for a future where operating costs could reach as low as $1 per mile. This vision aligns with Cruise’s goal of achieving $1 billion in revenue by 2025, demonstrating its commitment to shaping the future of autonomous transportation.

In conclusion, Cruise’s progress toward producing steering-wheel-less robotaxis marks a significant milestone in the autonomous vehicle industry. While regulatory challenges persist, the potential benefits in terms of safety, cost-efficiency, and scalability make it a promising venture that could reshape how we perceive and experience transportation.

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