Cruise never planned to make its own silicon. But in the quest to commercialize robotaxis—and make money from it—those unplanned pursuits can suddenly seem a lot more appealing.
Cruise realized that the price of chips from suppliers was too high, the parts were too big, and the reliability of the third-party technology just wasn’t there, Carl Jenkins, Cruise’s vice president of hardware, told londonbusinessblog.com during a tour of the company. company. hardware lab last month.
Amid a recruitment wave that started in 2019 and sequel in 2020, Cruise doubled down on his own hardware, including his own board and sensors. The investment has helped the company develop smaller, cheaper hardware for its vehicles. It has also resulted in its first production board, the C5, which powers the current generation of autonomous Chevy Bolts.
When the company’s purpose-built Origin robot axi hits the streets in 2023, it will be equipped with the C6 board. That board will eventually be replaced by the C7 which will have Cruise’s Dune chip. Dune will process all sensor data for the system, according to Cruise.
Typically, automakers use parts and sensors from Tier 1 suppliers to reduce R&D and manufacturing costs. Cruise saw no way to launch his autonomous ride-hailing without doing more of the work himself. As a result, the C7 board is 90% cheaper, has 70% less mass and uses 60% less power than chips from a vendor.
The company does not only provide chips. While long-range lidars and ultrasonic sensors still come from third parties, almost everything else, including cameras, short-range lidars, and radar, is also being developed in-house.
Cruise found that off-the-shelf radar just didn’t have the resolution they needed to run their vehicles. Like the board, according to Jenkins, there is a long-term cost saving of about 90%.
“I was told what the price I would have to pay for this hardware by 2025,” Jenkins said. “So I went to all the CTOs of Bosch, Continental and ZF in Germany. “What do you have in your research tanks that you do that meets these requirements?” Nothing, not even started. “Okay, if you start today, how long will it take me?” Seven years.”
At that point, Jenkins was able to expand his team from 20 people to 550.
When asked about the cost of building the Origin with in-house developed hardware versus parts sourced from suppliers, CEO Kyle Vogt told londonbusinessblog.com, “We couldn’t do it. It doesn’t exist.”
That’s not to say, however, that Cruise doesn’t want to be able to buy the necessary hardware.
“What we’ve found in the AV industry is that many of the components that have the robustness needed to work in a harsh automotive environment didn’t have the capabilities needed for an AV. The components that did have the necessary (AV) capabilities were unable to operate in those harsh environments,” said Vogt.
Made at Cruise, used at GM?
Automakers (excluding Tesla) have been more cautious about autonomous vehicles that would be sold to consumers. The technology Cruise has built and proven may eventually find its way into a GM product sold to a customer.
And there is reason to believe it will.
GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra has repeatedly said the automaker will make and sell personal autonomous vehicles by the middle of the decade.
“We use Cruise as a benchmark for us for autonomous vehicle technology and the stack and how it works,” GM president Mark Reuss told londonbusinessblog.com editor Kirsten Korosec in a recent interview. As Cruise develops its AV technology, the parent company has focused its efforts on advanced driver assistance systems Super Cruise and now Ultra Cruise.
“When we start researching and looking at personal autonomous vehicles, there are choices like does the car have pedals or does it have pedals that are deployable or does it have no pedals at all,” Reuss said. “And so we look at what people want and those are not easy questions to answer.”
Just a few years away from its mid-decade target, GM still has a lot of work to do, including its go-to-market strategy for these personal autonomous vehicles (or as Reuss calls them, PAVs). The feedback from the recent autonomous concept of InnerSpace for Cadillac
GM has not decided whether these PAVs will be launched as an up-market product or whether it will be attached to an existing vehicle model or a special vehicle, Ruess added.
Bumps on the road
Cruise currently runs an autonomous taxi company in San Francisco, but only in the middle of the night (10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.) and only within 30% of the city. The company notes that this decision was based more on making sure its vehicles operate during less hectic traffic times. It is currently working on expanding that space and time constraints.
It’s not just San Francisco that will see more driverless Chevy Bolts carrying passengers. Cruise plans to expand to Phoenix, Arizona and Austin, Texas over the next 90 days.
Scaling is the next chapter of Cruise. However, the hiccups keep coming. There have been multiple reports of Cruise robotaxis blocking intersections and other issues.
One vehicle was involved in a collision at an intersection, causing the company update the software on 80 of its vehicles. In April of this year, a Bolt was pulled over for not having his headlights on and at one point pulled away from the police officer. And of course there’s the infamous group of over half a dozen Cruise bolts mounted at an intersection and unable to determine where to go, causing traffic problems.
When asked about the build-up of the vehicles, Vogt noted, “This is part of operating, separating from scaling. It’s a normal bump in the road.” The CEO noted it was an inconvenience, not a security issue. Vogt said AVs have a lot of back-end services and one of them “flipped” and didn’t get back online fast enough. How they all ended up at the same intersection is that there are there was only one launch site for the vehicles at the time and that they were traveling through one of their main corridors near that launch site, Cruise has since built resiliency techniques into the AVs to make them more tolerant.
The company (and by extension Vogt) is confident in its self-built autonomous ride-hailing system. Now it has to convince skeptics that a ride in a driverless vehicle is worth paying for in cities outside of tech-friendly San Francisco.
Our driverless ride
At the end of the tour, Cruise set us up with an autonomous ride in a Bolt.
Our vehicle, named Ladybug, arrived and with a tap of the app we unlocked the doors and drove (no pun intended) through the city at night on our way to Japan Town.
Several vehicles were parked along the route with the driver’s doors open. The Bolt slowed down slightly, turned on its flasher and briefly slid into the other lane before landing back on its own lane. At intersections with four-way stops, it took on the personality of a cautious person and only pulled away after determining that the other vehicles would obey the traffic rules.
It was exciting at first and then boring, which is exactly what driverless driving should focus on. Yes, it’s a little weird to be in a car driven by a robot, but after being driven around by a careful robot for 20 minutes, the last 10 minutes make you wonder if you’re getting stuck at an intersection to get some add excitement to the ride.
Additional report from transportation editor Kirsten Korosec.