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Cruise is planning to build a winterized version of the Origin, the company's autonomous vehicle model that is purpose-built without a steering wheel or pedals.
"A couple of years from now, we'll have a new version of our vehicles coming out that is adapted for cold weather," said Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023.
Cruise operates a commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco and in Austin, as well as a free service in Phoenix. The GM-owned company is also collecting data, mapping and testing in around a dozen other cities, mostly with its fleet of Chevy Bolt EVs. Cruise is still awaiting federal approval to begin mass production on the Origins.
Like most AV companies, Cruise has limited its testing and operations to the Sun Belt region of the U.S. -- sunny weather provides the optimal environment for an AV to perceive its environment. San Francisco, Cruise's hometown, does have fog and occasionally smoke in the air, but rarely do the AVs have to contend with snow or ice there.
Vogt said as Cruise scales over the next couple of years, it will start entering cities north of the Sun Belt. But first it'll need to bring more vehicles online that can handle the challenging weather. This, Vogt said, brings up a variety of "fun engineering details."
"A simple example is the sensor pods, where all the cameras and radars and lidars are, they have heating elements built in, so they can melt ice and snow that would accumulate on them," said Vogt. "You can't really operate in a city with tough, wet weather unless you do that."
Cruise has been actively working on the problem of winterizing its vehicles for years now in order to get the tech to market by around 2025, according to Vogt. The development cycle in the automotive world is long and can take at least four years to go from when the technology is ready to when it is mass-produced in a vehicle. Everything from the reliability of every part in a vehicle to supply chain issues to factory line efficiencies are all moving parts that need to be balanced when getting a new vehicle to market.
While onstage at Disrupt, Vogt said he expects Cruise to start "scouting" in midwestern cities by next year, collecting data and learning about these new environments. But the company won't begin offering a pilot service in those cities in 2024.
"If we did that, we'd have a service that we'd have to flip on when it's sunny and turn off if it starts to snow, and while that is possible and something we'd explore, it's not ideal from a customer standpoint." said Vogt.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Cruise's service in Austin was free, but it is a commercial service.