Cruise is planning to build a winter version of the Origin, the company’s purpose-built autonomous vehicle model without a steering wheel or pedals.
“In a couple of years, we will have a new version of our vehicles adapted for cold weather,” said Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt on stage at RockedBuzz Disrupt 2023.
Cruise operates a commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco and Austin, as well as a free service in Phoenix. The GM-owned company is also collecting data, mapping and testing in about a dozen other cities, mostly with its fleet of Chevy Bolt electric vehicles. Cruise is still waiting for federal approval to begin mass production of the Origins.
Like most AV companies, Cruise has limited its testing and operations to the Sun Belt region of the United States: Sunny weather provides the optimal environment for an AV to sense its environment. San Francisco, Cruise’s hometown, has fog and occasional smoke in the air, but AVs rarely have to deal with snow or ice there.
Vogt said that as Cruise expands over the next two years, it will begin entering cities north of the Sun Belt. But first, more vehicles capable of handling adverse weather conditions will need to be brought online. This, Vogt said, brings out a number of “fun engineering details.”
“A simple example is the sensor pods, where all the cameras and radars and lidars are, they have heating elements built in, so they can melt the ice and snow that would accumulate on them,” Vogt said. “You can’t really operate in a city with a harsh, humid climate unless you don’t.”
According to Vogt, Cruise has been actively working on the problem of winterizing its vehicles for years in order to bring the technology to market by around 2025. The development cycle in the automotive world is long and can take at least four years to go from when the technology is ready to when it is mass-produced in a vehicle. Everything from the reliability of every part of a vehicle to supply chain issues to factory line efficiency are all moving parts that need to be balanced when bringing a new vehicle to market.
While on stage at Disrupt, Vogt said he expects Cruise to begin “exploring” Midwestern cities within the next year, collecting data and learning about these new environments. But the company won’t begin offering pilot service in those cities in 2024.
“If we did that, we would have a service that we would have to turn on when it’s sunny and turn off if it starts snowing, and while that is possible and something we would explore, it’s not ideal from a customer’s point of view.” Vogt said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Cruise service in Austin was free, but it is a commercial service.