In any case, should we count on this new wave of companies to chase the frontrunners? Unsurprisingly, Mo ElShenawy, Cruise’s executive vice president of engineering, isn’t convinced. “The state-of-the-art as it exists today is not enough to get us on stage where Cruise is,” he says.
Cruise is one of the most advanced car companies in the world. It has been running a live robotic taxi service in San Francisco since November. The vehicles drive in a restricted area, but anyone can now stop a car with the Cruise app and drive it to the curb without anyone in it. “We see a real spectrum of responses from our customers,” says ElShenawy. “It’s super exciting.”
Cruise has built a massive virtual factory to support his software, with hundreds of engineers working on different parts of the pipeline. ElShenawy argues that the mainstream modular approach is an advantage, as it allows the company to redeem new technology as it arises.
He also rejects the idea that Cruise’s approach won’t generalize to other cities. “We could have started out somewhere in a suburb years ago, and that would have put us in a corner,” he says. “The reason we chose a complex urban environment, like San Francisco, where we see hundreds of thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians and emergency vehicles and cars cutting you to pieces, was very conscious. It forces us to build something that is easily scalable.”
Cruise’s self-driving technology is certainly more advanced than Wayve’s: Wayve has yet to test its vehicles without a human behind the wheel, for example.
But before Driving in a new city, Cruise must first map out its streets in great detail. Most driverless car companies use these types of high-definition 3D maps. They provide additional information to the vehicle on top of the raw sensor data it receives along the way, and usually include hints such as the location of lane boundaries and traffic lights, or whether there are curbs on a particular stretch of street.
These so-called HD maps are created by combining road data collected by cameras and lidar with satellite images. Hundreds of millions of miles of roads have been mapped in this way in the US, Europe and Asia. But the layout of roads changes every day, which means that creating maps is an endless process.
Many driverless car companies use HD maps made and maintained by specialist companies, but Cruise makes its own maps. “We can recreate cities, all driving conditions, street layouts and everything,” says ElShenawy.