GM’s Cruise gets permission to test autonomous cars with no passengers

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OAKLAND, California – The race for driverless self-driving vehicles is heating up, and on Thursday, Cruise was the first to receive a permit to test cars without anyone sitting on the streets of San Francisco from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Cruise, which is mostly owned by General Motors and Honda and sees SoftBank Group as investors, has tested 180 self-driving cars in San Francisco with a safety driver behind the wheel, and the permit allows five of those cars to run empty. But don’t expect robo taxis just yet.

“So that’s a step or two beyond what we will initially do with this permit,” said Dan Ammann, Cruise CEO. “It’s not too far down the road,” he said, but declined to share a timeline.

In a blog post, he added, “We are not the first company to receive this license, but we will be the first to use it on the streets of a major American city.”

It will be an important step for Cruise to charge customers.

Each of the companies making money from rides in California requires a separate license, state officials said.

As part of SoftBank’s investment, SoftBank is required to purchase additional Cruise shares for $ 1.35 billion when Cruise is ready for commercial implementation.

“That’s a nice incentive to move to commercial implementation,” said Ammann, adding that Cruise was in “very strong” financial shape after raising more than $ 7 billion. Cruise posted a loss of $ 1 billion in 2019, according to a GM filing.

Cruise is the fifth company to receive the driverless license in California. Alphabet’s Waymo was the first to receive it in late 2018 for about three dozen test vehicles at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. This year, SoftBank-backed Nuro, whose vehicle does not have a steering wheel or pedals, was also approved and has provided medical supplies for temporary COVID-19 hospitals.

The Chinese startup AutoX and Zoox from Amazon.com have also received their license in recent months. The four previous permits are for Silicon Valley cities that are easier to navigate.

Under his license, cruise cars can go anywhere on the streets of San Francisco at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour, and can drive during the day as well as at night.

In Arizona, which has been more open to testing driverless self-driving cars, Waymo has been charging a select group of customers for empty vans that stop and drive them around since the summer of 2019. That program – temporarily interrupted due to the pandemic – was restarted in October and is expected to open to the general public soon.

To prepare for the future of the robot taxi, Cruise is working on improving the ride reporting app that employees use for free to travel around town, Ammann said.

That future would likely eventually include the Cruise Origin, an electric vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals unveiled in January, but it would require approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).