General Motors’ Cruise will pandemic-proof its driverless EV shuttles before they roll out in San Francisco

Cruise Origin
Cruise CTO and cofounder Kyle Vogt at the Origin's debut in early 2020.
  • Autonomous ride-hailing startup Cruise will build pandemic protections into its Origin shuttles.
  • The all-electric Origin was unveiled at the beginning of 2020; it's being jointly developed by General Motors and Honda.
  • The Origin will be built at GM's Factory Zero in Michigan, alongside the new GMC Hummer electric pickup truck.
  • Cruise is also petitioning NHTSA to put the Origin on the road in San Francisco without traditional controls, such as steering wheels and pedals.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Public transit is in a weird limbo amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with many folks opting for private cars instead. But self-driving startup Cruise wants to help ease that fear.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco-based, General Motors-affiliated company said in a Medium post that it would engineer additional safety features into the Origin shuttle, a vehicle it unveiled at the beginning of 2020 and plans to roll out at an unspecified date.

"From the minute that 'COVID' became a household name, our teams worked with a Harvard-trained epidemiologist to rethink both the interior of the Origin, as well as the riding experience," wrote Robert Grant, the company's vice president of government affairs. "Along with research from the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they developed a set of solutions for the Origin that will be highly effective in reducing the spread of the virus."

The first Origins to hit the streets will take advantage of a roomy, boxy design to place a clear barrier between the maximum of two passengers allowed in each vehicle at a time. A custom ventilation system will increase air circulation, and riders will have to wear masks while Cruise stocks the vehicles with wipes and hand sanitizer.

2022 GMC HUMMER EV 003
The Origin and the GMC Hummer will be built at the same factory.

Cruise's message to the world as it prepares for a commercial rollout on the Bay Area's congested streets is that the era of personal car ownership should end, for the sake of the plants and to reduce needless fatalities from auto accidents. Nearly 40,000 people die in car crashes each year in the US alone, Grant said in the Medium post.

"The Origin can replace many of these cars, decreasing both congestion and greenhouse gasses, but only if people feel safe enough to share a ride," he wrote. 

Grant added that Cruise and GM had already been thinking about how to "minimize the risk of contagion inside the Origin" because "people transmitted viruses before the pandemic, too." But the effort intensified when the pandemic struck.

cruise self driving car san francisco people walking
A Cruise vehicle in San Francisco in May 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged both ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft and hurt the traditional taxi business as well. 

Autonomous taxi services, given their currently limited operations, have mainly curtailed testing while they figure out how to pandemic-proof their future, commercialized offerings.

But last week, Cruise announced that it would be using a permit from the California DMV to put fully-driverless Chevy Bolt EVs on the road in San Francisco this year. On Wednesday, the company said that it would file a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to put the Origin into service.

The move is necessary because the vehicle won't have traditional controls, such as a steering wheel or pedals. Its construction will take place at what GM is now calling Factory Zero, where the company will build other EVs like the new GMC Hummer

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