This is big news in the startup world.
GM is acquiring Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based startup that is developing technology that will let your car drive itself. The idea is to free you up to do other things on the highway, like check your email or have a more robust discussion with your passengers. It's also meant to curb the number of major accidents on the road, since a computer can scan all around the car at all times in ways a human never could. A robot never needs a coffee break and never texts and drives.
I wrote a long feature on Cruise Automation for Inc. and visited the team in person. I took a ride in an Audi S4 with the founder, Kyle Vogt, and compared the tech to what Stanford University is doing. I came away impressed because the team of engineers were developing algorithms that make the car more aware of the road, other cars, and obstructions. As I mentioned in the feature, it's all about the math involved--knowing the speed of the car, the angle of the wheels, and whether there's another car about to change lanes next to you are all critical factors.
Google recently revealed that their technology is not perfect. They announced an autonomously driven car was in an accident with a bus, mainly because the car couldn't predict what the bus was about to do. My sense is that Cruise Automation has been working on mapping all of these conditions, experimenting with sensors, and making sure robot-driving is safe. Amazingly, since writing about Cruise, we still don't have any hard facts about a Google production car.
A GM rep explained to me that Cruise has been tweaking the sensors and AI. Vogt has said on the record that he was drawn to GM because of their vast manufacturing experience and work with electric vehicles (a new Chevy Bolt coming out this year looks promising). Cruise has a permit from the California DMV to test autonomous cars--along with Audi, Google, and others.
Strangely, GM already has self-driving car tech in development. Known as Super Cruise, it was supposed to debut in a future Cadillac to let the car drive on its own without the human driver having to steer or control the speed. Tesla beat everyone to the punch with an Autopilot mode that lets you drive hands-free and feet-free, although they tweaked it after release so that it doesn't work quite so aggressively and only at highway speeds.
The move is, quite honestly, a confirmation for startups making innovative tech. That $1B figure, while not confirmed by GM, is a major nod to what a small team can do. It should also usher the Cruise Automation tech to market much faster and fuel their growth. (GM has said they plan to let the team keep working on an aftermarket product and keep testing on California roads.)
It's an exciting development and one I'll be watching closely.