Either way, should we have this new wave of companies to chase the favorites? Not surprisingly, Mo ElShenawy, Cruise’s executive vice president of engineering, isn’t convinced. “The state of the art as it exists today is not enough to take us to the stage where Cruise is,” he says.
Cruise is one of the most advanced driverless car companies in the world. A live taxi service has been operating in San Francisco since November. Their vehicles operate in a limited area, but now anyone can cheer on a car with the Cruise app and make it up to the curb with no one inside. “We see a real spectrum of reactions from our customers,” says ElShenawy. “It’s super exciting.”
Cruise has built a large virtual factory to support its software, with hundreds of engineers working on different parts of the pipeline. Shenawy argues that the main modular approach is an advantage because it allows the company to exchange new technologies as it is introduced.
He also rejects the idea that the Cruise approach will not be widespread in other cities. “We could have thrown ourselves into a suburb years ago, and that would have made us a corner,” he says. “The reason we chose a complex urban environment, like San Francisco, where we see hundreds of thousands of cyclists and pedestrians and emergency vehicles and cars cutting you off, was very deliberate. It forces us to build something that heat up easily “.
But before Cruise can drive to a new city, he must first trace its streets in centimeter detail. Most driverless car companies use this type of high definition 3D maps. They provide additional information to the vehicle at the top of the raw sensor data it receives while driving, usually including tracks such as the location of lane limits 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 dealing with satellite imagery. Hundreds of millions of miles of roads have been mapped this way in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. But the paths of the roads change every day, which means that creating maps is an endless process.
Many driverless car companies use HD maps created and maintained by specialist companies, but Cruise does its thing. “We can re-create cities – all driving conditions, street layouts and everything,” says ElShenawy.
This gives Cruise an edge over its main competitors, but newcomers like Wayve and Autobrains have completely abandoned HD maps. Wayve cars have GPS, but otherwise they learn to read the road just by using sensor data. It may be more difficult, but it means they are not tied to a specific location.