The Cruise Origin Could do more for the AV Movement than Initially Expected
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
It’s no surprise that consumers are afraid of what they don’t know, or perhaps, what could be. Most people don’t like change, and the thought of giving up your steering wheel and pedals in a vehicle sounds like an amusement park ride many do not wish to partake in. While many remain skeptical, just like with any new product, consumers will need to experience the new technology until they become comfortable and realize how beneficial it really is to their lives. Just look at how far Tesla has come since the Model S launched nearly 8 years ago. Tesla shattered expectations of what electric cars can be, causing people to warm up to the idea of driving EVs. The same will eventually happen for driverless cars as well, but all in due time under the right circumstances.
General Motors has long bet on its Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion mantra. As the company fuels this philosophy into its newest products, Cruise Automation is about to take it to the next level with its first fully autonomous vehicle, called the Origin. Unlike the Chevy Bolts being tested on the streets of San Francisco, this vehicle has no steering wheel or gas pedals, in fact it looks more like a van than a traditional car. With seating for 4-6 passengers, GM claims these electric vehicles will have useful lives past 1 Million miles, and they won’t be sitting still 95% of the time like traditional vehicles. Also unlike every AV concept that has been shown to the public, this will actually be slated for production. While the launch window is currently unknown due to regulatory issues and incomplete development, it can be expected that GM will be launching their new ride hailing service within the next decade. Safety remains a top priority, as it should for the well being of pedestrians, so don’t expect the vehicles to begin public use until the major kinks are worked out.
While it’s exciting for the optimists and scary for the skeptics, there is no doubt that the Cruise Origin is a great step into the future of mobility. It is still unclear where the future of the automobile stands, and the AV’s place in personal transportation will remain questionable for many years. Those living in more suburban and rural neighborhoods will have a hard time finding use for such vehicles, especially if they remain costly to own privately. For the urban setting though, this is a different story, as it is already highly suitable for the changes that autonomous vehicles will bring. Despite this, there is still great controversy around the subject. Urban planners have been arguing between one another and automakers for some time, as urban planning isn’t as simple a feat as engineering a car. Every positive urban design change has a negative impact as well, so reimagining cities for the next generation is not the easiest thing to do. Perhaps the simplest thing is knowing what planners envision as a goal for how they want people to feel when they think of transportation in a city, but not particularly “how” its all going to look and operate.
This is where the Cruise Origin provides opportunity. Nobody knows exactly what it will be like with AVs running around crowded city streets. They could add more congestion if they have no passengers inside, they could provide too much opportunity for pedestrians to walk out unexpectedly because they know the car will stop for them, there is no way for a pedestrian to even communicate with the vehicle because there is no driver, etc. There are a lot of “what if” scenarios and its a tough pill to swallow not knowing how the system could operate. As with any big change though, baby steps! As the Cruise Origin eventually hits the streets, it provides the opportunity for planners and mobility providers to come together collectively to figure out how they want to adapt city systems to work for everyone. We want the safety and cost benefits of AVs but none of the negatives that could easily plague cities if AVs are deployed without making careful considerations in advance. Urban Planning is not like engineering in the respect that technology will solve most problems, as the movement of people involves many psychological components. People are not always predictable, and demand for certain types of transportation is constantly changing. Our transportation systems need to work accordingly with latent demand shifts, so we need to take that into consideration. Machines can adapt as we want them to, so the sky is the limit as long as we remain in control of major aspects of the new system.
It remains important to remember that in the urban planning world, mobility and accessibility are major form factors that govern how planners redesign streets, walkways, and public spaces. Street diets are a popular growing trend, as cities want to encourage residents to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving. Walking and biking gives you exercise and much more opportunity for social interaction, but reducing driving and parking lanes in favor of bike lanes and larger pedestrian walkways reduces vehicle capacity on roadways. This can cause congestion. Adding autonomous vehicles to the road may not particularly solve this issue, and again demand will shift based on what is unfolding in real time. People may choose to use a car, mass transit, walk, or bike depending on the weather, amount of current congestion on the road, and a variety of other factors. It is so hard to accurately predict everything, so collective efforts will become vitally important as AVs begin to penetrate the ride hailing market.
Like with any big idea that is set to provide massive benefits to the general public, the concept of autonomous vehicles isn’t going anywhere soon. In fact it will continue to grow as the technology becomes more refined. There will still be many new ideas to come, so finding opportunity to sit down and talk becomes vital in the years ahead. The Cruise Origin may be the first AV to bring forth these conversations as they are so important for the future of our cities and how people move about them.