Cruise control

Either way, should we count on this new wave of firms to chase down the front-runners? Unsurprisingly, Mo ElShenawy, executive vice president of engineering at Cruise, isn’t convinced. “The state of the art as it exists today is not sufficient to get us to the stage where Cruise is at,” he says.

Cruise is one of the most advanced driverless-car firms in the world. Since November it has been running a live robotaxi service in San Francisco. Its vehicles operate in a limited area, but anyone can now hail a car with the Cruise app and have it pull up to the curb with nobody inside. “We see a real spectrum of reactions from our customers,” says ElShenawy. “It’s super exciting.”

Cruise has built a vast virtual factory to support its software, with hundreds of engineers working on different parts of the pipeline. ElShenawy argues that the mainstream modular approach is an advantage because it lets the company swap in new tech as it comes along.

He also dismisses the idea that Cruise’s approach won’t generalize to other cities. “We could have launched in a suburb somewhere years ago, and that would have painted us into a corner,” he says. “The reason we’ve picked a complex urban environment, such as San Francisco—where we see hundreds of thousands of cyclists and pedestrians and emergency vehicles and cars that cut you up—was very deliberate. It forces us to build something that scales easily.”

But before Cruise drives in a new city, it first has to map its streets in centimeter-level detail. Most driverless car companies use these kinds of high-definition 3D maps. They provide extra information to the vehicle on top of the raw sensor data it gets on the go, typically including hints like 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 imagery. Hundreds of millions of miles of roads have been mapped in this way in the US, Europe, and Asia. But road layouts change every day, which means map-making is an endless process.

Many driverless-car companies use HD maps created and maintained by specialist firms, but Cruise makes its own. “We can re-create cities—all the driving conditions, street layouts, and everything,” says ElShenawy.

This gives Cruise an edge against mainstream competitors, but newcomers like Wayve and Autobrains have ditched HD maps entirely. Wayve’s cars have GPS, but they otherwise learn to read the road using sensor data alone. It may be harder, but it means they are not tied to a particular location.

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