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The cruise will soon hit San Francisco with no hands on the wheel

Last week, Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving vehicle developer has expanded a unique service that offers rides for paying passengers in the Phoenix area – without anyone behind the wheel. Videos shared by Waymo and others show the minivans effortlessly navigating wide, sunny streets.

Now rival Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, has taken a step towards its own self-driving taxi service – on the hilly, winding, pedestrian-flooded streets of San Francisco. On Thursday, Cruise announced that the California Department of Motor Vehicles had given him permission to test up to five of his modified Chevy Bolts without anyone behind the wheel. In a blog post, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said there would be truly driverless cars in town before the end of the year.

Most of the 60+ companies with DMV approval to test autonomous vehicles in California are required to keep at least one safety driver inside to sit behind the wheel and oversee the technology. Four other companies ̵

1; Waymo, Amazon’s Zoox, delivery robot company Nuro, and AutoX – have received approval to test completely driverless vehicles in the state. But nobody tests their driverless cars in hectic areas like San Francisco.

The approval is a sign that companies like Cruise are “stepping out of the technology development phase,” said Kyle Vogt, CTO of the company.

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In order not to freak out the neighbors, Cruise says the driverless car rollout will be gradual and will begin in just one neighborhood. it refuses to indicate which ones. DMV approval limits the five vehicles to speeds below 30 mph and prohibits operation in heavy fog or heavy rain. The slow rollout will “introduce people to the concept that driverless cars may be coming,” says Vogt. “Maybe not in the timeline [people] thought a few years ago but they come and expect this and start getting used to it. “

Cruise, like much of the industry, has admitted that the technical challenges of self-driving cars are more difficult than expected. It was originally planned to start an autonomous hail service by the end of 2019. Vogt has learned his lesson: He says it is no longer “reasonable to set a hard deadline or date” when fleets of truly driverless vehicles could ferry paying passengers in San Francisco.

According to Vogt, one of the challenges is: Cruise must know that the vehicle is working safely and carefully if, for example, an internal wire is disconnected. It needs to know that the car will react safely in a situation for which it has not been trained. To this end, Cruise has been testing driverless cars at a General Motors plant in Michigan for months.

A driverless Chevy Bolt tests at the General Motors Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan.

Courtesy Cruise

The Franciscans were not always satisfied with the self-drive tests in their midst. In the five years since Cruise began testing in the state, his cars have reportedly been involved in punch fights with taxi drivers, bringing at least one faulty golf ball to the windshield. Collision reports published by DMV indicate that California self-driving vehicle tests are occasionally involved in fender benders. The latest September reports show that cruise vehicles tested in autonomous mode have been driven into, bumped into, and involved in collisions that are reported to cause neck or back pain at times for the company’s safety drivers. Self-driving proponents say that vehicles powered by software will never be perfect, but keep the roads safer than people who are sometimes distracted, tired, or drunk. Neither the San Francisco mayor’s office nor the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Department answered questions about Cruise’s new approval.

This future can be hard to imagine, but Cruise has some ideas. Earlier this year the company held a launch event in San Francisco for a vehicle called Origin, a six-seat electric vehicle designed for autonomous driving and delivery. “It’s what you would build if there weren’t any cars,” said Ammann, the CEO.

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