Cruise nears approval to mass-produce robotaxis with no steering wheel, pedals

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said Thursday at an investor conference that the company is “just days away” from getting the green light to begin mass production of its purpose-built autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told TechCrunch that no decision to grant or deny GM’s petition has been reached, nor has a deadline been set for such a decision. That said, federal safety regulators are expected to announce a new rule-making in September. If passed, it also will benefit Amazon’s Zoox, which has built and is testing a similar type of vehicle to Cruise’s Origin.

Cruise first unveiled its Origin AV — built for both autonomous ride-hail and delivery — in early 2020. The GM-backed company has promised to put “tens of thousands” of Origins on streets in major U.S. cities over the next few years, but its ability to begin mass production has been hampered by lengthy regulatory processes.

Cruise, via GM, has been waiting for an exemption from the federal government’s motor vehicle safety standards, which require vehicles to have a steering wheel and pedals. NHTSA only grants 2,500 such exemptions each year, but there is legislation to increase that number to 25,000.

Cruise has still been testing its Origins in cities where it operates like San Francisco and Austin.

Vogt’s announcement at a Goldman Sachs investor event comes a few weeks after one of those test vehicles drove off the road and into a small electrical building, according to Austin Transportation Department records obtained by Axios. The Origin hit the building with enough force to break some off, the report said. Because the vehicle had no steering wheel, emergency personnel couldn’t quickly move it, and had to wait for a tow truck.

Cruise said the Origin test vehicle had experienced a system fault during testing and pulled over safely, but when live support re-engaged the vehicle, it shifted out of park and rolled into the building at six miles per hour.

Much of Cruise’s ability to score regulatory approval will depend on how the company answers questions regarding the safety of its vehicles that are already on the road.

Today, Cruise operates fleets of Chevy Bolt AVs in San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix, with plans to expand to a handful more cities. The company has come under the microscope in its hometown of San Francisco, where it operates around 400 robotaxis, after a string of incidents of stalled vehicles that have caused traffic jams and blocked emergency responders. The California Department of Motor Vehicles asked Cruise to reduce its fleet size after one of its vehicles collided with a fire truck, injuring one passenger. This happened days after Cruise, and its competitor Waymo, had received final approval to expand commercial, fully autonomous services across the city 24/7.

Earlier this week, protestors rallied outside of Cruise headquarters after the fire department accused the company of allowing its robotaxi to block the path of an ambulance which carried a passenger who later died. Cruise showed footage of the incident to TechCrunch that backed its denial of the incident as the fire department described, but the company suffered a reputation hit anyway.

While speaking at the investor event, Vogt expressed concern that too much pushback against the robotaxis — simply for being pioneer technology that will make mistakes — will stall important technological advancements that could make roads safer and save lives.

“I worry that we’re going to set society back a decade when it comes to road safety,” he said. “That’s just something we can’t do.”


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