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As Cruise Expands To Los Angeles, Self-Driving's Breakout Moment Has Arrived
No longer a project years away, self-driving cars are here and very real.
Cruise is expanding its self-driving car operation to Los Angeles amid a year of explosive growth for autonomous driving.
The company’s entry into the second largest city in the U.S., which I’m reporting first here, comes as it’s increasing its autonomous rides by 49% per month and already doing more than 10,000 rides per week. In LA, Cruise will begin testing soon and then expand to self-driving ride hailing. It will be the company’s eighth city of operation, up from one at the start of this year. And it won’t be the last.
“We’re not done,” Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told me. “There’ll be more this year.”
As Cruise spreads through the U.S., and Alphabet’s Waymo grows along with it, autonomous driving is finally delivering after years of false hype. The technology went from a perpetual “six months away” to chauffeuring masses of riders this year as both companies gathered experience in pilot cities and used that knowledge to expand to others.
The hardest part of autonomous driving, in reality, was getting to this point. As soon as cars could navigate one or two major cities on their own, expanding to a relatively unlimited number of cities became less of a technology problem and more of a vehicle supply issue. With that supply steadily coming online, rapid scaling should be next.
“Last year, we were operating 10s of autonomous vehicles, we're currently operating hundreds — almost 400 concurrently at peak. Next year, there'll be thousands. And then it'll continue at least 10x growth every year for the foreseeable future,” Vogt said.
Both Cruise and Waymo have found that their technology adapts well across cities, without having to retrain it from the ground up. After adjusting for some city-specific features — like the shape of traffic lights or the nature of traffic circles — they can start driving through new cities fairly quickly.
“Our initial testing in Austin, that piece took a few weeks,” said Aman Nalavade, a Waymo product manager. On Thursday, the company announced it would begin initial operations in Austin by this fall and roll out its ride hailing service a few months later.
Waymo is also testing on freeways in the San Francisco area, taking on autonomous driving’s next frontier. Currently, neither Waymo nor Cruise offer ride hailing customers the option to ride on freeways. But it shouldn’t be that far away. “On 101, 280, 380, you'll see our cars at all times of day driving with other cars, at speed, making lane changes, etc,” Nalavade said. “Hopefully in the coming months, there'll be some announcements about our freeways.”
Riding in self-driving cars has become commonplace in some cities already, something I experienced in San Francisco over the past two weeks. In approximately a dozen rides with Waymo and Cruise, I hailed autonomous rides via their apps (similar to Uber and Lyft) and got into their cars alone, in a totally empty vehicle, with no humans behind the wheel. It was at first a bit nerve wracking. Then it felt normal. I soon ignored the experience completely. Now, I don’t want to ride any other way.
There’s a lot to like about the autonomous vehicles. They ride smoother than any human driver. Their apps accept ride requests immediately (if the services have enough supply). Their cabins feels private (though there are cameras). And there’s no awkwardness around tip, conversation, climate, or music. Everything is at the rider’s discretion.
From a safety standpoint, both companies claim data shows they’re better than human drivers. But once in the vehicle, the stats only confirm what you’re seeing. The cars are cautious, not distracted, not drunk, and they navigate turns and stops with ease. You can text and do work without feeling nauseous. If you don’t wear a seatbelt, Cruise cars won’t start and Waymo support will call you. The more time you spend inside the vehicles, the more evident it becomes that regulators trying to stop them will ultimately lose. They’re just that good.
As self-driving rolls out, some Uber, Lyft, and delivery drivers might lose jobs or revenue opportunities. However, as with all professions that encounter automation, replacing people isn’t that easy. Harry Campbell, known as ‘The Rideshare Guy,’ told me that ride hailing’s success depends on drivers coming online in busy times and not waiting around during quiet periods. It’s harder to emulate that model with fixed costs like a self-driving cars. “Self-driving cars will be able to serve some areas at some times,” Campbell said. “But there’s always going to be opportunity for human drivers.”
Despite autonomous driving’s great promise, and progress, it’s remarkable that its rapid expansion isn’t turning more heads. The muted enthusiasm is likely due to a period in the mid 2010s, where self-driving boosters promised everything and delivered almost nothing. But now, as the technology finds its footing, companies are learning how to deploy it and the right cars are coming off the production line. Soon, perhaps very soon, it’ll be impossible to look away.
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What Else I’m Reading, Etc.
Uber CEO on ride costs, trust, and leadership [Wired]
Kenyan regulators sound the alarm over WorldCoin’s privacy implications [Semafor]
New report shows Chinese malware may be rife within U.S. systems [Axios]
Steve Jobs’ son, Reed, launches a $200 million VC firm [Entrepreneur]
Meta to launch chatbots with personalities (feat. Abraham Lincon) [FT]
Obama personally warned Biden of Trump’s persisting political strength [Washington Post]
Lionel Messi is dominating the MLS [The Ringer]
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