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Cruise receives permit to test autonomous cars without safety drivers in San Francisco

GM-backed driverless car startup Cruise today obtained a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that will allow the company to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in San Francisco. While Cruise has had state authority to pilot driverless cars with safety drivers since 2015, the new license enables the company to test five autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified city streets within San Francisco.

According to the DMV, Cruise’s vehicles can operate on roads with posted speed limits not exceeding 30 miles per hour during all times of the day and night, but not during heavy fog or heavy rain. Cruise is the fifth company to receive a driverless testing permit in the state; currently, 60 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver.

“Before the end of the year, we’ll be sending cars out onto the streets of SF — without gasoline and without anyone at the wheel,” Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said in a statement. “Because safely removing the driver is the true benchmark of a self-driving car, and because burning fossil fuels is no way to build the future of transportation.”

Cruise inched closer toward a commercial robo-taxi service in February with the acquisition of a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), following on the heels of rival Waymo. The procedural step was a part of the state’s ongoing Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, and it let Cruise provide passenger service in its autonomous Chevrolet Bolts with safety drivers.

The development followed the postponement of plans for Cruise’s fully driverless taxi service, which the company previously anticipated would launch by 2020. In a blog post, Ammann said performance and safety concerns necessitated the delay, although pushback from U.S. regulators over requests to waive safety standards might have contributed. The company had hoped to have 2,500 such cars up and running as part of a controlled on-demand fleet in the coming months.

Following the unveiling of its next-generation Origin vehicle, Cruise revealed that it has roughly 1,800 employees working on its self-driving cars, up from 1,000 as of March 2019. Furthermore, it claims a 2.5-times increase in the utilization of its all-electric test vehicles between summer 2019 and early February — an improvement that’s expected to drive down costs.

Cruise is testing the cars in Scottsdale, Arizona and the metropolitan Detroit area, with the bulk of deployment concentrated in San Francisco. It’s scaled up rapidly, growing its starting fleet of 30 driverless vehicles to about 130 by June 2017. Cruise hasn’t disclosed the exact total publicly, but the company has 180 self-driving cars registered with California’s DMV, and three years ago, documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum suggested the company planned to deploy as many as 300 test cars around the country.

Building on the progress it’s made so far, Cruise earlier this year announced a partnership with DoorDash to pilot food and grocery delivery in San Francisco for select customers in 2020. And it’s making progress toward its fourth-generation car, which features automatic doors, rear-seat airbags, and other redundant systems — and no steering wheel.

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