If you’re up for riding in a robotaxi, General Motors’ Cruise wants you to meet Origin — at some point

SAN FRANCISCO — The world’s first self-driving electric-powered ride-sharing vehicle is here, but no word on when you’ll actually be able to app-hail this robotaxi.

Cruise, the self-driving car division of General Motors, unveiled the Origin on Tuesday night in a former Honda dealership just south of downtown. The six-passenger vehicle looks a bit like a small bus, has no steering wheel or pedals, and offers a cavernous area where two rows of three passengers face each other. 

In introducing the vehicle, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, a former president of GM, told a crowd made up mostly of company employees that the Origin “is a production vehicle,” adding that an announcement about where and when manufacturing will begin is coming soon.

Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s co-founder who sold the company to GM in 2016 for $1 billion and now serves as chief technology officer, said that being the first automotive or tech company to introduce a dedicated autonomous ride-sharing car doesn’t guarantee success.

Kyle Vogt, co-founder and CTO of Cruise, GM's self-driving car division, shows off some sensor technology at the unveiling of the company's first purpose built self-driving, ride-hailing electric car, the box-like Origin. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

“There are pros and cons to being the first mover on this,” said Vogt. “Our plan is to keep investing on the self-driving software side of things, to the point where that becomes the thing that really makes a difference to the experience.”

Consumers have yet to warm in huge numbers to sharing their Uber or Lyft rides with other riders, and Ammann said that Origins can be hailed by a single rider.

But Vogt felt confident that the roomy and clubby nature of Origin’s interior would “cut into the friction and discomfort that often comes with cramming into the back seat of a car with someone you don’t know, and therefore increase the adoption of these vehicles.”

Cruise’s announcement comes at a time when long-running excitement in the past decade over the prospect of self-driving EVs has gradually turned to skepticism, as promises about when consumers will finally be able to ride in them get broken.

In 2018, Cruise, which has been testing a fleet of sensor-packed Chevrolet Bolt EVs throughout San Francisco, announced that a ride-hailing service open to the public would kick off in 2019. Currently, such a service is only available to Cruise employees.

Neither Vogt nor Ammann offered a new prediction, with both focusing instead on the need to continue to refine existing sensors and develop new ones.

The interior of the Cruise Origin, the GM company's first purpose built autonomous EV meant for ride hailing, features seating for six, who sit facing each other. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

At the presentation, Vogt showed off a device that was attached to the front of the Origin when he said was capable to “superhuman” abilities when it comes to scanning for nearby pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. 

Cruise’s technology came in for scrutiny last summer, when The Information, a technology-focused media site, reported that cautious Cruise vehicles sometimes took 80% longer to complete rides than a standard ride-sharing vehicle and that software glitches often required the human safety drivers to take control of the vehicle.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we haven’t cracked that superhuman threshold yet, so tomorrow it’s back to work,” said Vogt. 

GM bought Cruise at arguably the height of the self-driving car craze, when tech start-ups such as Google and Uber were pouring resources into the field. Not wanting to get caught out, some automakers opted to buy their way into the autonomous game, with Ford buying Argo AI in 2017 with a $1 billion-over-five-years deal. 

Ford has set a 2021 goal to unveil a ride-hailing service powered by a self-driving hybrid vehicle, with a mission to pick up passengers and also deliver goods. Cruise also said that its Origin vehicle could easily be reconfigured to accept packages.

Cruise has been fueled by a series of major investments in recent years, including a $2.2 billion infusion from Japanese investment firm SoftBank and $750 million from Japanese automaker Honda.

Ford's self-driving R&D program is less visible than Tesla's, but it's quite advanced. (Photo: Ford Motor)

The company currently has a valuation of $19 billion, much of that predicated on the promise of delivering a ride-hailing service that will greatly undercut the fares of Uber, Lyft and other human-driven services. 

Cruise executives said the modular and low-speed nature of the Origin EV means that each vehicle will cost less to produce (about half of what it takes to build an electric SUV, according to Ammann) and be able to run 24/7 for up to 1 million miles. 

While the valuations of companies such as Uber and Lyft remain high, some analysts question whether a business model anchored to subsidized rides is tenable long term. The most expensive part of a ride-hailing journey remains the driver.

Self-driving cars have been a near obsession at many technology companies, foremost among them Google. The Silicon Valley search company, now called Alphabet, started tinkering with the idea more than a decade ago and by most accounts has made the most progress based on sheer miles driven in the real world and in simulators. 

Google’s self-driving car company, Waymo, has been testing a ride-hailing service in select cities with specially made Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid SUVs. The company also has developed a two-person vehicle with no controls that has undergone testing at private facilities, and also tests cars with no drivers behind the wheel in California.

An Uber vehicle cruises in Tempe, Ariz., on Aug. 25, 2017. A self-driving Uber vehicle fatally struck a woman Sunday, March 18, 2018, in Tempe. (Photo: Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic)

One unknown remains human adoption: Will consumers’ innate concerns about having tech at the wheel with no possibility of human intervention been overridden by to lure of cheap fares?

In 2018, an Uber self-driving Volvo struck and killed a woman in Arizona when the car’s sensors failed to see her crossing a busy thoroughfare and the on-board safety driver did not react in time.

That was a stark reminder that accidents will happen with self-driving cars. But proponents of the new technology point to the 40,000 Americans killed each year in traffic accidents, typically due to human error. 

Cruise, in fact, opened its event with a video presentation that featured the sights and sounds of a car’s engine starting, followed by the thunderous sound of a car crash.

“Speed or safety?” said Ammann after taking the stage. “What if you didn’t have to choose?”

Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava

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