[By Roberto Baldwin]

Level 5 automation is the dream: a self-driving vehicle that doesn’t need a driver and is devoid of steering wheel and pedals. That’s what Cruise is trying to accomplish with this vehicle for an upcoming ride-hailing service in partnership with GM and Honda. The on-road training to accomplish this feat is happening in San Francisco and more recently has expanded to Phoenix, Arizona. But the Origin itself? That’s been designed and engineered in Michigan, and it’s more than likely it will be eventually built in Michigan.

“We love the challenge” of developing an autonomous vehicle, Jason Fisher tells me. He’s General Motors’ chief engineer on the Cruise Origin project, and we’re sitting in the newly unveiled prototype of the Origin. “One minute in San Francisco is about an hour in a less complex environment,” Fisher adds as he explains just how difficult the chosen training ground is and how much work GM, Honda, and Cruise Automation have to accomplish before deploying this autonomous vehicle onto public roads.

GM design director Stewart Norris was involved as well. “In our Advanced Design Studio, we’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years looking at urban mobility,” Norris said. The three companies have researched what ride-hailing customers want out of a service. That means talking to a lot of Lyft and Uber customers, parsing their ideas and feedback, and building what the partnership believes is a vehicle that delivers what people want in an electrified, autonomous package.

Although the venture has been testing autonomous technology on the Chevrolet Bolt EV for several years, they acknowledge that the newly revealed Origin’s autonomous setup has not yet been built. So it’s likely we won’t actually see a completely autonomous vehicle like this out on the road for as long as a decade.

Looks Like a Shuttle Bus

The Origin’s design doesn’t break any new ground. It looks like a lot of self-driving shuttles that are already deployed out in the world and a bit like a smaller version of Toyota’s e-Pallet, which is going to shuttle visitors and athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic villages. As in the e-Pallet, the Origin’s interior can be used for more than just giving folks a ride to the airport.

Fisher said that the interior has been designed to be as modular as possible. During the unveiling event, Cruise showed off a rendering of an Origin acting as a delivery vehicle. It’s not a far leap to seeing the seating configurations adjusted to hold more occupants, and if Cruise goes down the Toyota e-Pallet route, it could serve as a rolling retail space.

The modularity extends to the exterior sensors as well. When the vehicle is deployed, it’s expected to last for a million miles, according to Cruise. If that happens, the sensors will eventually become obsolete. Which is fine, because they’re made to be replaced when needed.

Where the modularity ends is in the size of the vehicle. At least for now.

Because EVs are essentially a battery pack, motors, controllers, cables, and wheels, it can be easier to expand on a platform. “The middle is very flexible, [so we] have a lot of architectural modularity. That’s been a requirement from Cruise as a business to be able to flex that down the line,” Norris said. The current Origin could be joined by a larger vehicle sometime in the future.

But it all relies on Cruise’s ability to develop self-driving software. Comfortable seats, extra wide minivan-style doors, and modular interiors still need a system that safely drives on the road with the rest of the world. They’ve built the vehicle; now they have to build the robot that drives it.

~source