From the ground up, inside and out, the Cruise Origin has little in common with conventional automobiles, but that’s precisely what was intended. This all-electric, fully driverless vehicle is designed to transform the way we get from Point A to Point B.
- The Origin could become the first mass-produced, fully driverless ride-hailing vehicle.
- Cruise officials estimate San Francisco motorists could save as much as $5,000 annually by switching to its service.
- Essentially a box on wheels, Origin takes space normally devoted to the trunk and engine compartment and uses it for passengers.
At first glance, the vehicle Cruise unveiled during a preview in San Francisco looks something like a toaster on wheels. But the Cruise Origin isn’t out to win any automotive beauty contests. It’s all about function over form, something “completely different. It’s what you’d build if we didn’t have cars,” said CEO Dan Ammann. “We thought about redesigning the wheels but decided we didn’t have any great ideas about that.”
Cruise founder Kyle Vogt shows how the Origin’s doors slide open. (Photo: Cruise)
Look ma, no steering wheel
Measuring about 20 inches longer than the current Chevrolet Bolt EV, and standing substantially taller, Origin starts out like most of the other EVs now coming to market. It moves motors, batteries and other key drivetrain components under the floor. But it goes a step further, freeing up space normally used for the engine compartment – as well as the trunk – to create a positively cavernous cabin with business jet legroom.
But slip inside and what you’ll likely notice first is the lack of a driver’s seat, as well as any steering wheel or pedals. Cruise says when Origin comes to market in the not-too-distant future, it will be a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, with the ability to travel without the need of a driver within a clearly defined, geo-fenced area.
Instead, Origin will rely on two primary units using laser, radar and other technologies to watch out for vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and other potential obstacles. The result will be “super-human,” proclaimed Kyle Vogt, who co-founded what was then called Cruise Automation in 2013. “Why should an AV (autonomous vehicle) stop at a human level of performance?” he asked a packed audience. “It shouldn’t. As humans, we sometimes make mistakes and get distracted.”
Cruise CEO Dan Ammann shows a rendering of a cargo version of the Origin. (Photo: Cruise)
Eliminate the driver and eliminate the stress
Going driverless will offer other advantages, or so Cruise officials claim. Forget the smell of a driver’s lunch, or having to engage in mindless chatter when you’d prefer to check your e-mail. And don’t worry about whether the driver has gone through the proper security checks. Today’s ride-sharing services can be “a stressful way to get around,” added Vogt. “You shouldn’t have to get lucky to be comfortable or safe.”
If the Origin delivers on all its promises, there could be another, equally appealing advantage: Today, it costs nearly $2 a mile to travel in a ride-sharing vehicle, substantially more than what it costs with a personally owned vehicle. But forecasts by the Boston Consulting Group and other researchers have estimated that could drop by nearly half once the driver is out of the picture.
Though autonomous sensors currently are quite expensive, costs should come down substantially when the Origin goes into mass production, said CEO Ammann, a former president of Cruise parent General Motors. He estimated the typical vehicle owner in San Francisco switching to the planned Cruise autonomous ride-sharing service will save about $5,000 annually.“At scale,” he told a packed audience, “we expect to produce it for roughly half what a conventional SUV costs today.”
Cruise CTO Kyle Vogt shows off one of the sensor units that can track numerous vehicles, pedestrians and other obstacles simultaneously. (Photo: Cruise)
How soon the service will launch is unclear. It was originally set to debut in 2019 but was pushed back as Cruise changed course. It originally planned to field a fleet of modified Chevy Bolts but decided to develop the unique vehicle that became Origin after Honda invested in the start-up. Since it was founded, Cruise has now raised $7.25 billion, with other investors including Japan’s SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price Associates.
Of course, Cruise isn’t the only company working on bringing driverless technology to a ride-hailing service. Lyft and Uber are in the game, as well as Waymo. That Google spin-off already operates an autonomous service in the Phoenix area, but its vehicles still require a human backup “operator” in the event of an emergency.
Cruise has other plans for the Origin and eventually plans to build other variants including ones that could be used by driverless delivery services.
Cruise isn’t the only company looking a driverless box-on-wheels design. So is Toyota, with its e-Pallette concept shown here. (Photo: Paul A. Eisenstein, TheDetroitBureau.com.)
WHY THIS MATTERS
Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are struggling financially because of the high cost of using human drivers. Fully driverless services, like the one Cruise plans, could dramatically change the equation and make it more attractive for motorists to give up their vehicles or cut back on their household fleet.