Tech’splaining: Cruise, GM’s Autonomous Brand

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Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac…and now, Cruise? General Motor’s newest and, arguably, its most important brand is probably the one you’ve never heard about.

  • Cruise Automation was founded in San Francisco, California, in 2013.
  • In March 2016, General Motors acquired a controlling stake in the fledgling tech company.
  • Cruise is tasked with developing self-driving vehicles that could be used to transport people or cargo.
  • Cruise recently revealed the Origin, a completely driverless ride-share vehicle.

Cruise Chevrolet Bolt
As part of its research and development process, Cruise has outfitted the electric-powered Chevrolet Bolt hatchback with its autonomous drive hardware. (Photo: Cruise)

Origins of Cruise

Remember the name Cruise, because you’re going to be a hearing a lot more about GM’s cutting-edge division in the years ahead. What once began as another self-drive startup with a few dozen employees, about the only thing now growing faster than Cruise’s headcount – which has zoomed past 1,500 at the time of writing – is the division’s ambition to be at the vanguard of driverless ride-shares and autonomous drive systems.

In its original format, Cruise Automation was focused on developing autonomous drive systems that could be retro-fitted to existing vehicles. For about $10,000, the Cruise RP-1 sensor array could turn any car into an autonomous vehicle. The major caveats being that the technology had to allow for manual overrides, driving could only take place in daylight hours, and the system could only be used in California. Oh, and the RP-1 hardware could only be installed on select makes of Audi luxury sedans. Needless to say, the market was limited.

With General Motors stepping in, Cruise refocused its efforts and outfitted a fleet of electric-powered Chevrolet Bolt hatchbacks with sensors needed to conduct its next-level self-drive research. Fleets of autonomous Bolts are presently being tested in Arizona, California, and around the Detroit metro area. These development vehicles, along with countless hours of computer simulations, are the backbone of Cruise’s data collection, and its strategy for making self-drive cars an everyday reality.

Cruise OriginThe Cruise Origin doesn’t look like anything on the road today. (Photo: Cruise)

Cruise Origin: The Future is Driverless and Rectangular

The Cruise Origin recently burst onto the scene and helped drive the point home that GM’s tech-centric division isn’t going to hide in the shadows – or stay stuck behind a computer screen. With its boxy exterior design and sliding side doors, the Origin is an attention-grabbing electric passenger shuttle, one that completely does away with human driving input. This means the steering wheel, brake and gas pedal, and forward facing driver’s seat were all jettisoned from the Origin’s blueprint.

The Origin is substantially bigger than the Chevrolet Bolt, the overall size and shape is similar to a current minivan. Inside, there are two rows of seats that face each other. Headroom and legroom is cavernous, thanks partially to the tidy packaging of all batteries and electric motors in the floor of the vehicle. This “skateboard” electric vehicle structure is becoming increasingly popular, and helps free up lots of space for passengers or cargo.

During the Origin’s unveiling in San Francisco, nothing was mentioned about driving range, recharging times, or when it will be entering into service. Rather than buying or leasing an Origin, the vehicle will be part of a subscription-based ride-share service. In select markets, users will hail a Cruise Origin much like the would an Uber or Lyft.

The ride would be completely driverless, though routes would have to fall within specific geo-fenced areas. This allows the Origin to navigate roads that it “knows,” areas of a city that have been painstakingly mapped using an array of radar, laser scanning, cameras, and other assorted sensors. Traveling outside of these set zones will be a no-go for the Origin.

Cruise OriginThe Cruise Origin was big on promise during its introduction in San Francisco, but short on some important details. (Photo: Cruise)

Cruise down the road

When should we expect Cruise vehicles to be powering their way down the road? The answer to that question remains unknown, though it’s clear GM wants to be at the forward end of this emerging technology. Trials and tests are likely to start imminently, and in many of the same regions Cruise has already undertaken tests in its fleet of Chevy Bolts. How much the Origin ride-share service might cost remains another missing part of the puzzle.

What Cruise luckily has is time and, more importantly, plenty of money to keep development moving ahead. At present, Cruise has received more than $7 billion dollars in backing from not only General Motors, but also T. Rowe Price, Softbank Investments, and Honda. The last of those three might come as a surprise, given that GM is the parent company of Cruise. But the two automakers have agreed to pool their resources to speed the development of shared autonomous technology. Having a vehicle that looks unlike anything in either automaker’s lineup makes this balancing act that much easier, too.


If General Motors has its way, the Cruise brand will become firmly embedded in both the automotive and tech worlds. Timing is everything, however, and it remains to be seen how quickly the promise of the self-drive Origin can be transferred to public roads and ride-share services.

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