There’s few things that make me more suspicious than hearing the Model T invoked, as in predictions of its second coming. There’s never, ever going to be a second Model T, just like there’s never going to be a second invention of the railroad or bicycle. These were one-time historical personal mobility disruptions on a scale that’s hard to even quantify. All three of them had profound and lasting effects on the built environment, gender dynamics, rural density, commerce, etc.
Undoubtedly, autonomous shuttles like the Cruise Origin will have a potentially significant effect on urban life, but not anywhere nearly on the scale of the Model T. It’s a shuttle van that seats six, without a driver. Will folks actually be all that thrilled to share a space that small with up to five others? Certainly some or many, but there’s going to still be many other mobility options.
GM’s Cruise division recently revealed the endgame of its multi-year autonomous test program in San Francisco using Bolt EVs. Admittedly, it’s something different, although rather familiar too, as it looks a lot like an autonomous shuttle pod one might encounter at an airport or so. It has sliding doors and seats six; three and three, facing each other, just like a stage coach. And of course it’s totally driver-less.
The plan is for Cruise is to make mobility as a paid service even more compelling as a consumer product. And presumably, cheaper than an Uber or Lyft, although that assumption still needs to be proven, given that all of the sensors on the Origin are not yet cheap. But by keeping them in service essentially continuously, the opportunity for cost reduction certainly is conceivable. And even more so if it’s shared with up to six riders.
There’s still a major regulatory hurdle, of course, as vehicles without steering wheels are not yet permitted, except for a 25mph maximum limit in neighborhood electric vehicles (“NEV”), which is why the now-abandoned Google/Waymo Firefly (above) was able to do without one. But Waymo abandoned that as it’s just too limiting, and is now offering its first commercial services in Arizona using Pacifica hybrid vans.
And some of those vans are now offering “driverless” service, although a safety driver will still be aboard the van, if not behind the wheel. That’s my son Ed in the back seat of one under way(mo); he was the first journalist invited to ride in one. His report (with video) is here at techcrunch.com.
The Origin will be built at GM’s Hamtramck plant in Detroit, which GM recently committed to a number of new EVs, all based on a single “skateboard” architecture. It might be in 2021 or 2022, but there’s still serious obstacles. From an Autonews article:
Most AV companies, along with Cruise, haven’t announced launch dates for their self-driving vehicles. They are working on AV technology in the interim to be ready whenever NHTSA outlines the regulation around it. Ammann said the Origin needs “super-human” performance, which it hasn’t yet achieved. To start, Cruise will test the Origin on private campuses.
“The regulation issue is a problem for everyone and has to be settled at the federal level,” said Ramsey. “The biggest issue is determining who does what. It’s hard for states when they don’t know what feds are going to do. It’s a big barrier.”
A mighty big barrier. In any case, once AV regulations are real, there’s no doubt whatsoever that they will be geofenced, meaning their use will be restricted to specific metro areas, starting with ones that tend to be more friendly to them in a number of ways, such as a lack of severe weather and such. Cruise using SF as its pilot operation is interesting, as it does have good weather, but the city streets are hardly as placid as the suburbs of Phoenix.
GM’s one relative advantage is in the possibility to wring out costs by utilizing the same basic EV platform in numerous other vehicles, as well as the fact that the Origin doesn’t need high performance. Tesla 0-60 times are obviously not welcome in an AV. Cruise CEO Dan Ammann specifically is targeting a cost point at one half that of the Tesla Model X.
All that talk of volume and lower resulting cost is of course invoking the Model T. But Hamtramck’s size limits total volumes, and as of yet, projecting lofty sales for new GM EV’s might be a fool’s errand. The EV market so far is actually languishing except for Tesla, which is increasingly dominating it at the expense of others. GM’s Bolt EV suffered a second year of sales declines, and recently had to resort to $10,000 incentives to keep them from piling up.
So what’s all of this really about? The valuation of Cruise, which has become important to the stock valuation of GM, which owns Cruise. OK, that’s my cynical side talking, but invoking the Model T tends to do that to me.
And if you want a more nuanced take on Cruise and the Origin from another Niedermeyer, son Ed just published his at Arstechnica.com. The title is “Cruise’s autonomous Origin hints at ‘McDonalds’ of mobility. Now how’s that for a double hit? The Origin invokes both the Model T and McDonalds. What’s next: the Cadillac of autonomy? Oh, never mind.
Actually, both the McDonald’s and Cadillac references are valid, as son Ed points out that Cruise’s strategy for outdoing Uber and Lyft is to offer a service that is cheap and consistent, without the highly variable factor of a driver, as in drivers that are too chatty, stinky, or prone to sexual assault, as has happened 3,000 times in Ubers. No driver, no unexpected behaviors, as long as the Origin performs as expected and you’re not sharing the very utilitarian transit-grade interior accommodations with other passengers that are…too chatty, stinky, or prone to sexual assault. In which case, there’s no driver to intervene.
Let’s just say that the autonomous future still has some potential wrinkles to iron out. And that calling the Origin the next Model T might just be a wee bit premature.