COVID-19 is forcing Cruise Origin to rethink and redesign its robo-taxi

Timing is everything. Cruise, a self-driving vehicle startup, developed the autonomous hail vehicle Cruise Origin 2022 and showed it to the world in January 2020.

Two months later, the world was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly the Origin, a six-passenger pod to hail, was viewed by new health-critical eyes. A small vehicle facing six people, three per bench, is not ideal in a world that wants to keep a deadly virus from spreading

Fortunately for Cruise, the Origin has been designed to be modular enough that given the rapid advances in sensors, lidar, and other technologies, it’s not outdated. Improved components can be easily replaced without having to redesign the vehicle yourself.

Pandemic leads to design changes in cruise origins

“This pandemic has opened our eyes to a lot of things that we hadn’t thought about before,” said Mo ElShenawy, senior vice president of engineering at Cruise.

Cruise examines research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and is working with Harvard University epidemiologists to rethink the interior design and overall user experience of a Cruise robo-taxi.

“This was a great opportunity for us to rethink some of these concepts,” says ElShenawy. The team is redesigning some versions of their vehicle to curb the spread of this virus or future versions in a world with heightened awareness of infections. (Recent research suggests that pandemics could become more common in the coming years.)

Plexiglass and disinfectant

More details will follow, but the Cruise Origin will have a different interior, which includes center parts in the vehicles with plexiglass and disinfectant.

The way you order a vehicle and the logistics of ridesharing can also change.

The changes do not necessarily move the start dates. Cruise says it made good progress before the pandemic. Engineers kept the tech going, and in November Cruise became one of six companies to receive approval to test driverless autonomous vehicles on public roads in California.

Driverless tests are in progress

Cruise is using its new permit to test its fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolts (Cruise is majority owned by GM) on the streets of San Francisco. Some test with a security driver to monitor things. others are driverless. “It was one of the highlights of the year to see this vehicle drive solo on the streets of San Francisco,” says ElShenawy.

Cruise is also testing the Origin at GM Michigan’s Milford Proving Ground.

The next step is a Deployment Permit, which a company can use to move from testing to commercial operation. Cruise would like to start early commercialization this year.

Built in Michigan

The Origin is built at General Motors’ Factory Zero – so named because only electric vehicles are made – in Hamtramck, Michigan. Production is scheduled to start late this year or early 2022 when all safety boxes are activated. “We will be able to produce hundreds of thousands of these vehicles very soon,” says ElShenawy. The start date is safety-related – the vehicle has to be safer without a driver than with a person behind the wheel to get the green light.

In addition to the Passenger Origin, there will be a slimmed-down version that doubles as a commercial delivery van, replacing the side tram doors with a rolling garage door for parcel access. Both versions hope to launch in 2022.

Meanwhile, Cruise uses Bolts in a delivery pilot with Walmart. “This is a great step for us to build the actual customer muscle and work with the largest retailer in the world,” says ElShenawy.

GM as a partner and competitor

Ironically, one of Cruise’s competitors will be GM itself, who created BrightDrop, a division for electric utility vehicles, starting with the EV600 van. Cruise welcomes the competition. “This is not a zero-sum game,” says ElShenawy, noting that there is a trillion dollar market that can be unlocked between hailstorms and deliveries. “The cake is way too big.” And Cruise has benefited from the scale that partnerships with GM and Honda allow to keep costs down.

“To design a vehicle, you have to [autonomous vehicle]Designing it from the ground up with size and cost targets in mind would make the business really profitable going forward, “says ElShenawy.” This is one of the main advantages for Cruise. On the software side, we continue to work independently. The latest partnership with Microsoft complements the validations. Having a tech titan like Microsoft in our corner is something that prepares us for even more success in the future.

“The main job at Cruise, and what drives me and others to be here, is that we’re genuinely interested in changing the face of transportation,” ElShenawy continues. “Make this radical change and run our entire fleet of self-driving vehicles, all electric, with renewable energy. This race is about getting us to tens of thousands of cities with hundreds of thousands of vehicles. That is the goal.”

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