Cruise admits its driverless robo-taxis need a human at the remote-control wheel

Plus: Parent GM taps brakes on AI van production

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt confirms reports that his AI robo-car maker's now-paused driverless taxis need regular human intervention to help them make sense of the road, yet he is downplaying the severity.

Vogt made his statement not on any official channel, but in a Hacker News thread about a New York Times story in which unnamed Cruise employees claimed the company's robotaxis required human help "every 2.5 to five miles," and had a support staff so large there were 1.5 workers per Cruise vehicle.

In other words, Cruise's taxis aren't nearly as driverless as they may appear.

Vogt's comments were confirmed as legitimate to The Register by a Cruise spokesperson, who echoed much of what the CEO and cofounder said in his statement. 

According to Vogt and Cruise, the company's robotaxis are only being remotely assisted between two to four percent of the time, and then only "in complex urban environments." Rather than disputing the report, Vogt added that the 2.5-to-5-mile figure refers to how frequently Cruise robotaxis initiate a remote assistance session, but few of those sessions ever reach an actual human.

"These sessions are triggered proactively (i.e when path is obstructed, identifying objects) and 80 percent of the time are resolved autonomously by the AV," a Cruise spokesperson told us. 

As to the suggestion that there were 1.5 remote assistance employees for every Cruise taxi on the road, Vogt didn't dispute that figure either. 

"We are intentionally over staffed given our small fleet size in order to handle localized bursts of RA demand. With a larger fleet we expect to handle bursts with a smaller ratio of RA operators to AVs," Vogt said. He added that he believed the reported staffing numbers included those who support Cruise fleet operations beyond remote assistance, too. 

For those behind on the Cruise news, the company paused all driverless operations across the US on October 27 days after California's Department of Motor Vehicles suspended the company's license to operate in the state over risks to public safety. 

The Golden State's pause came a couple months after the California DMV forced Cruise to slash its fleet size by half following several accidents. Days before the California DMV rescinded Cruise's license, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced an investigation into a pair of collisions involving Cruise robotaxis striking pedestrians.

GM says it's still committed to driverless cars

General Motors, which bought Cruise in 2016, has invested around $2 billion a year into the business. With Cruise's recent struggles, it would make sense for GM to reevaluate its relationship with Vogt's autonomous operation, which the Cruise CEO may have revealed to be the case in an all-hands call that leaked to the press yesterday.

According to a recording of the call that The Register was unable to get a copy of, GM reportedly paused production of an autonomous van called the Origin, which is designed to be so autonomous it doesn't even have manual controls.

GM has since confirmed the Origin production pause to us, said it was only temporary, and that GM was still working to finish production on a few pre-commercial Origin vans.

"More broadly speaking, we believe autonomous vehicles will transform the way people move around the world, and the Origin is an important part of the AV journey," a GM spokesperson told us. 

As to the reason behind the pause - be it cold feet or GM just waiting to see if and when Cruise gets its driverless license back - GM declined to elaborate. ®

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