Jul 22, 2023


by Kurt Schlosser on August 28, 2023 at 8:12 amAugust 28, 2023 at 8:19 am

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company backed by General Motors, will begin testing its cars in Seattle on Monday, the company told GeekWire.

The cars will have humans in them — for now. In a bid to learn from Seattle’s hilly environment and often inclement weather conditions, Cruise is launching a small, piloted fleet of vehicles to collect data throughout the city, including parts of downtown, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Fremont, the University District, and West Seattle.

Cruise joins other self-driving vehicle companies currently testing in Seattle, including Zoox and NVIDIA, both of which received permits from the Seattle Department of Transportation under its Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit program. SDOT’s permit requires a human driver in the vehicle who is monitoring and ready to take control if the need arises.

“Seattle is a great urban environment for us to continue to extend our testing and operations,” Mohamed “Mo” Elshenawy, Cruise’s executive VP of engineering, said in an interview last week.

Along with data collection, Cruise is assessing the ongoing readiness of its autonomous vehicle system, which includes sensors, infrastructure, compute and network, hardware/software interface and applications.

Seattle joins a growing list of cities where the company is testing piloted vehicles, including Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; Miami; Nashville; and Atlanta. The San Francisco-based company has also gone fully driverless in its hometown as well as Austin and Phoenix.

Cruise and Waymo, another self-driving company which is also testing in Bellevue, Wash., both recently received permits to begin charging passengers for rides around the clock in San Francisco.

But Cruise’s self-driving taxis ran into a bit of a snag after two recent collisions with other vehicles. The California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered the company to cut its fleet of operating vehicles in San Francisco by 50% while it investigates.

Cruise addressed one of the incidents, in which an AV collided with a fire truck, in a blog post on Aug. 18. The company also addressed the collisions and its own safety record in a statement provided to GeekWire:

“Our tech is continuously improving and we’re proud of our safety record of over 4 million driverless miles in an extremely complex, urban environment without a serious safety incident. This is a novel technology that draws scrutiny, and is illustrated against the backdrop of over 40,000 deaths each year on American roads. We believe it’s clear that Cruise positively impacts overall road safety, and look forward to working with regulators to make any improvements and provide any data they need to reinforce the safety and efficiency of our fleet.”

The Seattle City Council and Department of Transportation launched the permitting program last November in response to safety concerns citizens raised after companies such as Amazon — which owns Zoox — announced plans to test self-driving cars in the city.

“I believe this is a sensible step for basic safety, transparency, and accountability for companies wanting to test emerging technologies on our public streets,” Council Transportation Committee Chair Alex Pedersen told GeekWire at the time.

SDOT’s permit supplements the Washington State Department of Licensing’s existing AV self-certification with requirements such as a test driver, increased insurance, first responder plans and engagement, and public outreach.

Cruise said it will be working with SDOT as it commences manual data collection and will adhere to Washington’s statewide AV regulations.

“While the amount of regulatory oversight varies from state to state, Cruise is committed to actively engaging with state and local officials as well as advocates and organizations for road, pedestrian, and bicyclist safety to hear their ideas and feedback for making our services as safe as possible in anywhere we test and operate in,” a Cruise spokesperson said.

The cities of Seattle and Bellevue released a collaborative “Strategic Vision for Automated Vehicles” in February that outlines regional goals for a future that will likely include driverless cars, including ensuring safety, transportation equity, and enhancing sustainability.

There is no timetable for when driverless cars might be permitted to operate in Seattle or elsewhere in Washington state. SDOT’s Director Greg Spotts sits on the Washington State Transportation Commission’s Autonomous Vehicle Work Group Executive Committee, along with other stakeholders from industry, academia, and transportation advocacy.

“We look forward to continued work by regulators to ensure that future driverless AVs operate safely in cities like Seattle,” SDOT said in a statement to GeekWire.

SDOT last week released a draft of its Seattle Transportation Plan, a 20-year “blueprint” for the city’s transportation vision that included several mentions of autonomous vehicles.

AVs could improve traffic flow, reduce emissions, expand travel options for seniors and people with disabilities, and support equity goals, the report said. However, it also noted challenges with regulatory guidelines and concerns with privacy and liability.

Elshenawy said the mission is all about safety.

“It’s going to be the future,” he said of driverless technology. “It’s just a matter of how we are launching this with our cities and our communities and gaining the trust of our customers, of our road users, of our regulators along the way.”

Cruise was founded in 2013 by CEO Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan and has raised a total of $10 billion. The company, which is a remote-first workplace now, opened an engineering office in Bellevue in 2019.

Microsoft was part of a $2 billion investment in Cruise in 2019, joining GM and Honda and other key investors, including Walmart, and T. Rowe Price. Microsoft’s aim was to help accelerate the commercialization of self-driving vehicles by bringing its cloud computing technology to the equation.

Elshenawy previously spent more than 3 1/2 years at Amazon as a global head of technology. Siddhartha Srinivasa, a leading robotics expert and professor at the University of Washington, left his position as director of Robotics AI at Amazon to join Cruise in January.

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by Kurt SchlosserMicrosoft’s mission: empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.DoorDash pays $1.6M to City of Seattle after investigation related to paid sick time lawMelinda French Gates, MacKenzie Scott join $45M effort to connect and revitalize Seattle waterfrontConservative think tank asks U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Washington state capital gains taxWriter and editor Kurt SchlosserGeekWire DailyGeekWire WeeklyBreaking News AlertsGeekWire StartupsGeekWire Mid-week UpdateGeekWire Local Deals