Honda brings special skill to GM's Cruise self-driving venture

Honda brings special skill to GM's Cruise self-driving venture

- in Automotive

A teaser photo of the autonomous vehicle to be developed shows a podlike body with vertical illuminated headlights.

Cruise, the young startup backed by a giant automaker, is fast proving its potential to propel General Motors into a leadership role in self-driving vehicles.

Cruise, which GM acquired in 2016, now has the backing of a renowned technology investment firm and a rival automaker, Honda Motor Co., which last week agreed to invest $2.75 billion in Cruise over the next 12 years. That includes an immediate $750 million infusion for a 5.7 percent stake in the company.

The alliance gives new credence to the San Francisco operation and intensifies its competition with Waymo, the Google-backed self-driving car operation whose partners include Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover and AutoNation. While Waymo sees its mission as perfecting the robotic driver for all types of vehicles, Cruise and GM have focused on the vehicles themselves.

Army of talent

Honda’s investment puts Cruise’s value at $14.6 billion — $3.1 billion more than when SoftBank Vision Fund announced plans to invest $2.25 billion in the operations in May.

Honda’s investment appears to be qualitatively different from SoftBank’s, as it’s expected to be more hands-on and expands the Japanese automaker’s ties with GM.

As a middling player on the global stage, Honda needs such help to stay competitive against bigger rivals at home and abroad. The once fiercely independent carmaker has been confronting an era of rapid industry change by forging partnerships to tackle everything from next-generation drivetrains to autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

But it has much to offer, including a world-class engineering team steeped in the discipline of making cars energy- and space-efficient, two big considerations for the energy-intensive, battery-powered self-driving cars GM has promised.

“The Honda partnership does bring an army of very talented engineers to the table,” Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told Automotive News after the announcement last week. He said the automakers have “unique specialties that they bring to the table” and Honda’s will help the venture develop and deploy a purpose-built self-driving vehicle at scale. GM and Cruise envision such vehicles serving at least initially as taxis in urban ride-hailing fleets.

Honda will handle the design engineering of the robotaxi’s interior and exterior, said company spokesman Teruhiko Tatebe, and will continue to pursue plans to develop such technologies for personal use.

GM CEO Mary Barra said the tie-up will “provide Cruise with the world’s best design, engineering and technology resources to further establish them as a leader in AV technology with global reach and the ability to deploy at scale.”

Robotaxi fleets

The global reach, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch research analyst John Murphy, is particularly important as GM tries to launch robotaxi fleets. Murphy wrote in a note to investors that the “partnership may provide GM with access to the Japan market to deploy its Cruise AV fleet, especially ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which it would likely be unable to do without Honda.”

In January, GM sought regulatory permission to deploy vehicles without manual controls such as steering wheels and pedals, starting in 2019.

GM President Dan Ammann said next year “remains the objective” but safety will determine when the vehicles launch.

Cruise’s self-driving fleet is based on a version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV that operates without manual controls. But Vogt wrote in a post on Medium that Cruise has been quietly prototyping a “groundbreaking new vehicle over the past two years” that does not adhere to a traditional car design.

Vogt told Automotive News “the sky’s the limit” as to what can be put into the new purpose-built autonomous vehicle.

A teaser photo of the front end of the vehicle released Wednesday, Oct. 3, shows a rectangular, podlike vehicle with large vertical illuminated headlights. Ammann said the plan is for GM to manufacture the vehicle, though he declined to provide a timeline for production or deployment.

“This takes us into the true future of mobility,” Ammann said.

Ammann described the Honda partnership as having “a running start,” as the automakers earlier teamed up to develop other advanced technologies, including plans announced four months ago for a new generation of batteries intended to cut costs and accelerate the companies’ rollout of electric vehicles. Another GM-Honda partnership has been working on advanced hydrogen fuel cells for deployment in 2020.

He called the relationship between the two companies “long-standing and deeply trustful.”

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