Cruise Origin autonomous vehicle unveil
The Origin, which can seat six passengers, will not be privately owned. It will be used in a branded ride-hailing service. (Cruise)

GM’s Cruise unveils dedicated self-driving vehicle built for upgradable hardware

Cruise will drive down the cost by running the Origin for a million miles, updating sensors and software as it goes.

In 2016, General Motors acquired Cruise Automation, thereby launching its self-driving business. After four years using modified Chevrolet Bolt hatchbacks to test its autonomous systems, Cruise in January unveiled its first purpose-built self-driving vehicle for a proprietary ride-hailing service. An all-electric, van-like vehicle, the Origin is equipped with an arsenal of sensors, but lacks a steering wheel and traditional pedals.

Removing a driver’s seat and conventional dashboard allowed Cruise to provide a vast cabin space for six passengers, with two 3-seat rows facing one another. “Every seat is like an extra-legroom seat on an airplane,” said Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s president and chief technology officer. He said that the Origin provides three times more area to get in and out than a similarly sized conventional vehicle.

The interior space is deceiving from the outside. “The optics make it look bigger,” said Carl Jenkins, vice-president of hardware at Cruise. “The wheelbase is about the same as a Honda CR-V.” At the launch event in San Francisco, Cruise executives outlined the technical details and strategy for how the Origin will be deployed in a mass-scale global fleet of shared, on-demand, autonomous vehicles (AVs) that will compete with Uber and Lyft.

They emphasized modularity, upgradable technology and leveraging GM’s electric powertrain and assembly plants. Each vehicle will have a remarkable projected lifespan of about 1 million miles, with equipment and software receiving updates over those miles. “This is a fully engineered vehicle that’s on its way to production,” said Dan Ammann, Cruise’s chief executive officer. Ammann noted that relying on the Origin for daily transportation would save consumers $5,000 a year compared to traditional vehicle ownership or using today’s ride-hailing services.

The business plan is audacious. “Our goal is to replace a lot of the travel that’s happening in the United States and around the world,” said Ammann. To make that happen in the U.S., the Origin will need to pass Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that don’t currently allow vehicles without steering wheels. Ammann said that Cruise is working closely with NHTSA, which recently published the 4.0 version of its draft AV framework for public comment.

A lot of judgment calls
“We had to develop this vehicle with some degree of risk,” said Jenkins, referring to the lack of an adopted regulatory framework, even for essential functions like the kind of messages and warnings that need to be provided to passengers and other motorists. That required Cruise to make “judgement calls,” according to Jenkins.

The Origin is equipped with lidar, radar and red-green-blue (RGB) and infrared cameras. While Jenkins did not provide specifications about the sensor suite, Cruise executives highlighted the packaging of those sensors in a unit that quickly pivots horizontally to focus on specific roadway elements. Vogt compared the articulating unit, mounted at the four corners of the roof, to the ability of an owl to crane its neck to see small objects in a field from high in the sky.

The algorithm for determining which direction the unit should aim uses redundant sensing, as well as the vehicle’s software-determined pathway. “We’re not just relying on cameras. Every time and in every situation, there are at least two different sensor types double-checking the path for near-field, mid-range and long-range,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins explained that the high position of the swiveling unit was selected to provide the best view and to prevent common damage at the bumper level. “In our fleet of cars, the fascias are getting hit every day by common things,” said Jenkins. Cruise’s fleet of modified Bolts has accumulated nearly a million miles of autonomous driving in San Francisco in the past year alone.

The Origin also uses a perimeter of ultra-short-range radar, with a range of about five to 10 meters. Those radars are mounted lower on the vehicle to detect street- and curb-level objects. There are additional sensors for functions like listening for sirens and detecting if the vehicle has been bumped. Jenkins would not confirm details such as the differences between the pivoting sensor suite in the front and back of the Origin. The rear units need less sensing power because their primary function is to detect vehicles and pedestrians approaching from behind.

The company’s reluctance for specifics is partly based on the Cruise’s modular, upgradable strategy. In other words, the hardware is under continuous review. Jenkins said that he’s looking at products being offered by the largest suppliers as well as the newest startup companies. Because Cruise’s fleet of autonomous vehicles will strictly be owned by the company – and never sold to private owners – engineers can swap out sensors on an ongoing basis.

“We’ll be changing these things on a pretty regular basis,” said Jenkins. “We want the vehicle to last as long as possible. That’s why upgrades have to be so easy.” He said the corner units use a “four-bolt pattern” for quick replacement. According to Jenkins, he and his team are on the hunt for the hardware that costs less, uses less power and minimizes heat. “We have a really aggressive plan, not only to meet our perception needs while processing all this data but for what it takes to drive the cost down,” he said.

Designed to be built at scale
Another facet of its cost-cutting strategy is in mass-scale manufacturing. Jenkins contrasted the Origin with the previous self-driving car he worked on, the Google Firefly. Jenkins was the chief engineer for that pod-like vehicle. Waymo, Google’s sister company, stopped using the Firefly in 2017. Jenkins said the Firefly was produced in a batch of about 100 vehicles, with a production plan for as many as a thousand units.

“That was a great project, but not commercially viable,” he said. “But the Origin will scale up to run fleets around the world.” R&D for the Origin was a close collaboration between Cruise, General Motors and Honda. The combined team works at GM’s Warren Technical Center in Michigan. However, GM will be the sole manufacturer of the Origin (Honda Motor invested $2.75 billion in Cruise in 2018).

While Jenkins has direct responsibility for hardware, his work supports the broader goal of making the user experience of riding in the Origin as enjoyable as possible. He said the engineering team is paying close attention to cornering and braking that’s as smooth as possible for rider comfort. Jenkins said that’s “the deep part” of path planning.

Meanwhile, Vogt, the CTO, is simultaneously working on software improvements to reach what he calls the “superhuman” threshold of AV safety. He admits that Cruise is not there yet. “If you throw more compute and sensing technologies at the problem, it lowers the level of difficulty a little bit,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of challenging software work to be done, regardless of the amount of sensing and compute that’s available.”

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