Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

Cruise Joins #AVMeToo Movement

by Roger Lanctot | 1月 22, 2020

We don't know when it might launch. We don't know how much it might cost. We don't know precisely where it will operate - though downtown San Francisco is a good guess. We do know that it looks like a dozen or more other robotaxi wannabes in an increasingly crowded market that doesn't exist.

General Motors' Cruise Automation division leaked/shared its concept for a physical robotaxi yesterday Called Origin, the vehicle is intended to be used as part of an app-based shared ride-hailing service capable of saving a typical San Francisco resident or visitor $5,000 vs. owning a car, according to some press reports.

San Francisco residents or visitors who are averse to vehicle ownership already have access to mass transit, e-bikes, taxis, Ubers & Lyfts, and buses. The Cruise Origin isn't really designed in a manner capable of offering a superior value proposition or experience to any of these choices.

Public transit will be cheaper and possibly faster and more convenient as will taxis, Uber's and Lyft's. Moreover, the Cruise Origin doesn't solve the volume people moving challenge that is solved by mass transit, since the vehicle seats a maximum of only six passengers.

This captures the dilemma facing Cruise. As a robotaxi are you going to be a Navya or a Waymo? Cruise Origin is neither.

A Navya-style autonomous bus is intended to be a volume people mover at low speed in a defined area - at least today. Navya's are definitely not intended to roam freely throughout the city. They are practical for operation in defined areas such as a downtown city neighborhood or a college or corporate campus, or a retirement village.

There is definitely a market for Navya-style buses though it is emerging slowly - a reality that has already created financial challenges for the companies making and marketing these vehicles. The slow growth also raises questions regarding the scalability of the concept and the ability to drive down costs with volume.

Waymo's Chrysler Pacifica-based vehicles are tested and designed for both city and highway operation. They are intended to replace taxis, Uber's, and Lyft's - for which there is a market. Happily for Waymo, these types of robotaxis are based on modified mass production vehicles providing a template for scalability and cost reduction.

Perhaps more importantly, Waymo vehicles meet existing safety requirements and regulations and, as such, do not require wavers, exemptions, or permissions other than for autonomous operation. The Cruise Origin benefits from none of these advantages.

The Cruise Origin appears to require passengers to sit and use seatbelts - even though the vehicles will not operate outside of the city. In the picture illustrating Cruise Origin it is already clear that passengers are going to be uncomfortable.

Waymo simply adopts the familiar facing forward approach in its vehicles since they are based on existing mass production vehicle designs. Cruise Origin tries to split the difference between a Navya shared ride approach and the Waymo mass production vehicle approach and ends up with a solution to a problem that has already been solved with a vehicle suited to an unnecessary purpose.

All of which turns my mind to my favorite local airport - Washington-Dulles (IAD) - in Northern Virginia where so-called mobile lounges (36 of them) still move passengers from the main terminal to Terminal D. These vehicles are low speed, volume people movers with cabins that look like a subway car - meaning most passengers stand for the short journey to their terminal.

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The Dulles mobile lounges rise up to "dock" with the terminal, load their passengers, back away/undock, slide down slightly, and then drive to their next destination and repeat the process - loading and unloading passengers. The experience is very much like a truck-mounted subway car.

The early robotaxi prototypes shown by car makers, like GM, emphasize comfort and style. This robotaxi vision - like the Cruise Origin - is a vestige of outmoded thinking. Yes, an individual vehicle owner with a semi-autonomous vehicle will want to travel in luxury. But volume people moving is going to require a much more Spartan and practical passenger experience.

Dulles architect Eero Saarinen got it right 60 years ago when he dreamed up the mobile lounges as part of what was considered visionary thinking at the time. In fact, the mobile lounges originally took passengers directly to their airplanes. The 36 mobile lounges at Dulles soldier on - some of their routes having been replaced by airport subways in 2010 - as a testament to the power of Saarinen's early vision. Their function is echoed in mobile lounges used to transport NASA astronauts to their launches and by similar transports at JFK and Paris de Gaulle airports.

What emerges from this debate are three paths forward for autonomous vehicles:

A) Privately owned semi-autonomous vehicles - i.e. Tesla Motors

B) All-purpose robotaxis capable of both highway and city operation - i.e. Waymo

C) High passenger volume, low-speed shuttles - Navya

The market for A-type vehicles is the largest and is steadily evolving as we learn more and more about what Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, has in mind. It's worth considering what will happen when Tesla enters the shared ride business and Tesla is no longer selling cars but begins selling a transportation subscription service.

The market for B-type vehicles is either a service delivered by Waymo or a platform that taxi and ride hailing operators participate in or acquire. This is the second largest market opportunity - bearing in mind that A-type and B-type will converge.

The market for C-type vehicles is the smallest and most challenging, but these types of vehicles are beginning to appear in a growing number of venues creating new people moving opportunities. An aging population and expanding public transit should provide ample demand for these vehicles.

As for the Cruise Origin? This is a solution looking for a problem. It is an elegant science experiment for which there is no market. It has no place in San Francisco. It could find a home in a Navya-like setting - but no one will want to buckle their seatbelt - as appears to be necessary in the existing design - which is aesthetically pleasing, if not commercially appealing.

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