During GM’s investor day conference in New York this morning, Dan Ammann, CEO of the automaker’s self-driving subsidiary Cruise Automation, gave a glimpse at the progress it’s made toward a fully self-driving vehicle fleet. He said that Cruise’s engineers, of which there are now 1,800 (up from 1,000 in March 2019), have over the past four years helped improve autonomous driving performance by a factor of well over 1,000. Concretely, they’ve reduced the amount of time between major software updates by 98% while cutting the time it takes to train the AI underpinning its cars by 80%, such that major new firmware rolls out up 45 times more frequently than before (as often as twice weekly).
Furthermore, between summer 2019 and now, Ammann says there’s been 2.5 times increase in the utilization of its Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles — an improvement that’s expected to drive down costs. On the subject of division-wide cost savings, Cruise anticipates its forthcoming electric vehicle fast-charging station in San Francisco will contribute to an 85% reduction in cost per kilowatt of charging. And Ammann claims that compute costs will be reduced by 85% with GM’s newly unveiled Origin shuttle.
Ammann recently claimed that vehicles like Origin, a vehicle designed in equal part by GM, Cruise, and Honda that lacks a combustible engine or a driver and that can accommodate up to six people, will save the average San Francisco resident up to $5,000 a year and operate continuously for up to a million miles. Last month, he proclaimed in a Medium post that the world needs to move beyond human-driven single-occupancy vehicles in the future, arguing that there’s a gap left unfilled today by public transportation systems, ridesharing services, and micro-mobility apps for scooter or bike rental.
“It’s our mission at Cruise to make that technology as safe as possible and get it deployed as rapidly as possible, so that we can have the impact of saving millions of lives that are lost on the road,” said Ammann, who estimates that the autonomous ride-sharing and delivery logistics markets are $5 trillion and $2 trillion opportunities, respectively, and that data insight and in-vehicle experiences represent a combined $1 trillion. “Our goal in the simplest possible terms is to build a superior product. It’s to build a product that is better than what people have as transportation alternatives today … Our goal is to make shared rides that don’t suck.”
Cruise is considered a pack leader in a global market that’s anticipated to hit revenue of $173.15 billion by 2023. Although it hasn’t yet launched a driverless taxi service (unlike competitors Waymo, Yandex, and Drive.ai) or sold cars to customers, it’s driven more miles than most — around 450,000 in California in 2018, according to a report it filed with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s behind only Waymo, which drove 1.2 million miles that year.
Cruise runs lots of simulations across its suite of internal tools — about 200,000 hours of compute jobs each day in Google Cloud Platform as of April 2019 — one of which is an end-to-end, three-dimensional Unreal Engine environment that Cruise employees call The Matrix. Over 30,000 instances spin up daily across 300,000 processor cores and 5,000 graphics cards, each of which loops through a single drive’s worth of scenarios and generates 300 terabytes of results.
In the real world, Cruise uses third-generation all-electric cars equipped with lidar sensors from Velodyne, as well as short- and long-range radar sensors, articulating radars, video cameras, fault-tolerant electrical and actuation systems, and computers running proprietary control algorithms engineered by Cruise. They also sport in-vehicle displays that show information about upcoming turns, merges, traffic light status, and other information, as well as brief explanations of pauses. Most are assembled in a billion-dollar Lake Orion, Michigan plant (in which GM further invested $300 million last month) that’s staffed by 1,000 people and hundreds of robots.
Cruise is testing the cars in Scottsdale, Arizona and the metropolitan Detroit area, with the bulk of deployment concentrated in San Francisco. It’s scaled up rapidly, growing its starting fleet of 30 driverless vehicles to about 130 by June 2017. Cruise hasn’t disclosed the exact total publicly, but the company has 180 self-driving cars registered with California’s DMV, and three years ago, documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum suggested the company planned to deploy as many as 300 test cars around the country.
Currently, Cruise operates an employees-only ride-hailing program in San Francisco called Cruise Anywhere that allows the lucky few who make it beyond the waitlist to use an app to get around all mapped areas of the city where its fleet operates. The Wall Street Journal reported that Cruise and GM hope to put self-driving taxis into usage tests with ride-sharing company Lyft, with the eventual goal of creating an on-demand network of driverless cars.
Building on the progress it’s made so far, Cruise earlier this year announced a partnership with DoorDash to pilot food and grocery delivery in San Francisco this year for select customers. (Ammann says that other pilots are ongoing and “under discussion.”) And it’s making progress toward its fourth-generation car, which features automatic doors, rear seat airbags, and other redundant systems, and it lacks a steering wheel.
Growth certainly hasn’t slowed lately. In May 2018, Cruise announced that SoftBank’s Vision Fund would invest $2.25 billion in the company, along with another $1.1 billion from GM itself. And in October 2018, Honda pledged $750 million, to be followed by another $2 billion in the next 12 years. Today, Cruise has an estimated valuation of $14.6 billion, and the company recently expanded to a larger office in San Francisco and committed to opening an engineering hub in Seattle.
But Cruise is burning through cash quickly. GM posted a $1 billion loss on Cruise in 2019, up from a $728 million loss in 2018.