General Motors and Cruise Introduce the Origin Toaster-Car

©. Cruise Origin in San Francisco/ Cruise

It will be electric, autonomous and shared. Where have we heard that before?

Just as every minivan ended up evolving into the shape of a Chrysler, it seems that every electric car is turning into a toaster or a box. We recently showed the Canoo, and now present the Cruise Origin, built by GM.

The Origin is completely autonomous, and doesn't even have a steering wheel or brakes for a driver to take over. Studies and tests done years ago by Google, now Waymo, found that humans were not all that useful at taking over the wheel in time; they have trouble keeping their eyes on the road even in conventional cars. (Uber confirmed this in real life.) But also as Cruise notes,

When you remove a steering wheel, a rearview mirror, pedals, and more, you get something new — an experience purely designed around the rider. That means a spacious cabin and an on-demand, consistent experience where you can relax, work, or connect.

Dan Ammann of Cruise is very convincing about the problems with the car as we know it, describing it thusly:

Imagine if someone invented a new transportation system and said, “I’ve designed a new way of getting around: It’s powered by fossil fuels that will pollute our air. It will congest our cities to the point of inciting rage in its users. Its human operators will be fallible, killing 40,000 Americans — and more than a million people around the world — every year. Most of the time, the equipment will sit unused, occupying prime real estate and driving up housing costs. If you’re young, old, or living with a disability, then you can’t use it. And for those who can, the privilege will cost $9,000 a year and suck up two years of your life.”

Of course, you would say, "You’re crazy." So he developed the Cruise Origin as an alternative.

That’s why at Cruise it is our mission to improve safety by removing the human driver, reduce emissions by being all-electric, and reduce congestion through making shared rides more compelling by providing an awesome experience at a radically lower cost. Only then will we truly move beyond the car to the transportation system that we deserve — one that is safer, more affordable, and better for us, for our cities, and for our planet.

In the video, Ammann says that the Cruise will be autonomous, electric, and shared. These are the exact words I heard almost a decade ago at a workshop at the Institute without Boundaries (actually titled Beyond the Car, like Ammann's piece) in Toronto, and that people have been saying ever since, but many have given up on the idea of shared vehicles; Americans have consistently said they don't want to share, as Elon Musk put it, with "a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer." Or as a commenter put it when I wrote earlier about sharing:

I won't 'share' a ride with a stranger in a private vehicle. In fact many women traveling alone won't. I just do not feel safe getting into a stranger's car (particularly a male) alone. If I am traveling in a private car with other people (no matter who is driving), they are people I know.

According to Bloomberg, Ammann thinks things can change, "that people will have to give up riding alone for the common good."

“What’s it going to be: Convenience or climate? Time or money? Speed or safety?” Ammann asked. Then he made his pitch: “What if you didn’t have to choose?”

The trouble is, you do have to choose. What we have here is an autonomous minibus providing what's called Microtransit or as transportation expert Jarrett Walker calls it, "flexible transit, since it seems to be the most descriptive and least misleading term. Flexible transit means any transit service where the route varies according to who requests it. As such it’s the opposite of fixed transit or fixed routes."

The biggest cost in flexible transit is the driver, and the Origin Cruise eliminates that, which is a very big deal. But it doesn't make it efficient; there are other problems that relate more to geography than technology. Walker writes:

Flexible services meander in order to protect customers from having to walk. Meandering consumes more time than running straight, and it’s less likely to be useful to people riding through. Fixed routes are more efficient because customers walk to the route and gather at a few stops, so that the transit vehicle can go in a relatively straight line that more people are likely to find useful.

Anyone who has ever put their kid on a cheese wagon knows how inefficient flexible services can be, how long it takes for the bus to go from one house to the next. And the kids are doing it at the same time from the same location every day.

The Origin has to figure out the best way to pick up a number of people without taking them too far out of their way, which is hard, and probably only works at peak times. The rest of the time, they are going to be carrying single passengers, just like the Ubers do now. Just having four seats doesn't make a vehicle shared. And we know that Uber didn't decrease congestion, it increased it.

A few years ago, Elon Musk thought autonomous vehicles would get people out of buses and take them all the way to their destinations; Dan Ammann wants to get people out of cars. But they both face the same basic problem that Walker summarized in four words: Technology never changes geometry. Just because it's autonomous and can be shared doesn't mean that it won't get stuck in traffic, or that you won't have to wait for it when everyone wants to go to work at the same time.

Dan Ammann is totally correct about what's wrong with the car as we know it, but I think he is wrong when he says we don't have to choose. We do have to pick the appropriate transportation for the urban pattern and density where we live, and not try to be all things to all people. It is a geographic and geometric planning problem that the Cruise Origin cannot solve.