GM’s Cruise begins testing autonomous automobiles with out human drivers in San Francisco

Two self-driving Chevy Bolt EV cars are seen during a media event hosted by Cruise, GM’s autonomous car unit, in San Francisco, California, the United States, on November 28, 2017.

Elijah Nouvelage | Reuters

Cruise, a majority subsidiary of General Motors, has started testing self-driving vehicles without a driver monitor in San Francisco, the company said on Wednesday.

The California-based company plans to begin testing a handful of vehicles, according to Dan Ammann, Cruise CEO, followed by a “very methodical and responsible” ramp-up across San Francisco. He said the tests mark the first use of the permit in a major U.S. city.

“What this means for Cruise, and I think the self-driving industry in general, is that you see completely driverless technology out of the R&D phase and into the journey to a real commercial product,” he told Reporters made a call Wednesday. “I think this is incredibly exciting and a major milestone along the way.”

While the vehicles have no people in the driver’s seats, Cruise plans to keep a safety operator in the front passenger seat when testing begins, according to Ray Wert, Cruise spokesman.

“The security operator has the ability to bring the vehicle to a standstill in an emergency, but does not have access to standard driver controls,” he said in an email to CNBC. “At some point this security operator will be completely removed.”

The commercialization of self-driving cars was far longer than most thought a few years ago. Despite the significant hype on Wall Street and from companies including Cruise that now or nearby promise driverless fleets, Alphabet’s Waymo remains the only company operating self-driving vehicles for public use in Arizona.

Ammann declined to say when the company plans to open a business in autonomous commercial vehicles for passengers or cargo, citing, “There will be a lot more next year.” He said the company’s progress will be “much more visible and tangible from here”.

“I think next year will be a pretty exciting year,” said Ammann, citing that the test vehicles are expected to be part of an employee test program before public use.

Last year’s cruise delayed the launch of a commercial self-driving vehicle service in San Francisco, which was expected to be deployed in 2019. The company has consistently stated that the start time depends on security. Ammann repeated this position on Wednesday.

The new tests come less than two months after Cruise received approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to remove the replacement human drivers from his self-driving cars. Others like Waymo, Autox Technologies, Nuro, and Amazon Zoox received such approval prior to Cruise.

Cruise has driven more than 2 million miles in the past five years and has invested billions of dollars in the operation, according to Ammann. GM is the majority owner of Cruise with Honda Motor and Softbank.

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