Autopilot-equipped Teslas and the new Audi A8 can't drive themselves everywhere, but these vehicles can take over for drivers for hours at a time. If we're waiting for autonomous vehicles to operate on a higher plane than that, however, it could be a while.
That means calling a vehicle a "real" driverless car is still largely subjective.
In a way though, that makes it all the more powerful. With no real standard to go by, the burden of proof is on the automaker to demonstrate that a creation is truly a breakthrough. So when Kyle Vogt, founder and CEO of GM's Cruise Automation, published a Medium post under the title "How we built the first self-driving car (really)," he was throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the AV development world.
"While the videos we've previously released show the most advanced self-driving software ever demonstrated, the most critical requirement for deployment at scale is actually the ability to manufacture the cars that run that software," writes Vogt in the September 11 post. "So, today, we're unveiling the world's first mass-producible car designed to operate without a driver. This isn't just a concept design -- it has airbags, crumple zones, and comfortable seats. It's assembled in a high-volume assembly plant capable of producing 100,000's of vehicles per year, and we'd like to keep that plant busy."
While Vogt's post spends far more time describing the process by which Cruise designed this new car than he does describing the vehicle itself, he does offer some details -- most of which are framed in relation to previous Cruise AV designs.
Vogt states that the new cars "have almost completely new and fault-tolerant electrical, communication, and actuation systems that are unique to a driverless vehicle." He also says that the vehicle's wiring harness has 4,085 wires and 1,066 connectors, which he claims leaves little margin for error in his company's work.
"Without rigor and process, vehicles will spend most of their time in the shop while technicians chase 'ghosts' (chafed wires, loose connectors, or anything else that causes things to suddenly stop working)," he writes. "As you can imagine, achieving massive scale with a low defect rate and high reliability is ridiculously hard ... So you really need a well-run assembly plant to build something that works, such as the billion dollar plant we're using in Lake Orion, MI."
Vogt notes that a certain number of the cars bearing Cruise's latest design will join the ride-sharing fleet that shuttles the company's employees in San Francisco.
As the law requires, they'll still have a driver behind the wheel ready and waiting to take over operations if necessary. Before then, we hope to get a closer look at the car that Vogt touts so enthusiastically. Between the boldness of his words and the scarcity of detail that he provides, it's reasonable to expect more information on the car in the near future.