It’s always been a bit weird that San Francisco, the cradle of autonomous research, has been missing from the list of cities that boast their own self-driving ride-hailing services. Autonomous cars are prowling the streets of cities like Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Singapore — and soon enough Boston — offering rides to ordinary people through services like Uber, NuTonomy, and Waymo. And poor San Francisco has been left out of the mix — until now.
Cruise, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, announced today that it was launching a beta version of an app to hail one of its self-driving cars for daily trips. The service is available seven days a week, allowing Cruise to evaluate how people use autonomous vehicles as a primary transportation service. There’s a catch, though: the app is only available to Cruise’s employees for now.
By limiting the service to Cruise’s employees, the company says it wants to start small before it considers expanding to more users. This makes sense, as most companies that operate self-driving cars are just now figuring out how to deploy them publicly. Uber is offering rides to a limited number of people in Pittsburgh and Arizona; Waymo (née Google) is conducting its public program in Arizona as well; and NuTonomy is offering trips in Singapore and will soon launch in Boston in partnership with Lyft.
Cruise’s service, called “Cruise Anywhere,” is currently being used by about 10 percent of the company’s 200 San Francisco-based employees, with more being enrolled each week. (There’s currently a waitlist.) GM employees who are based in Detroit are also eligible for rides, when and if they are in the city.
Cruise has been operating a fleet of all-electric Chevy Bolts equipped with self-driving cameras and sensors on public roads in San Francisco for months now. So it makes sense that it would eventually launch a publicly available ride-hailing service at some point. While we’re not there yet, GM did announce in June that it had completed production on 130 additional all-electric autonomous vehicles at its assembly plant in Michigan. It’s not difficult to see Cruise giving the green light to non-employee trips in the near future.
Still, most people are highly skeptical about autonomous vehicles. The tech industry is convinced this is where things are headed, and the auto industry has (belatedly) followed suit. But there’s an overall lack of familiarity with the technology, mainly because very few people have had the first-hand experience of riding in a self-driving car. Supporters say autonomous cars are essential to driving down traffic accidents and fatalities, but in most peoples’ minds it’s still a far-off futuristic fantasy.