Cruise Automation self-driving Chevrolet Bolt’s have been undergoing driving tests in San Francisco. (Shutterstock)

Cruise Automation self-driving Chevrolet Bolt’s have been undergoing driving tests in San Francisco. (Shutterstock)

Cruise to test unmanned self-driving vehicle fleet on San Francisco streets

Armed with a DMV permit, company plans to roll out driverless vehicles by end of year

Cruise, the creator of the red and white self-driving vehicles that have become commonplace in San Francisco, announced Thursday it had received permission to test its driverless cars without an in-person backup on public roads statewide.

More akin to small spaceships than an average passenger vehicle, self-driving cars from a number of mobility technology companies like Waymo, Uber and Noox have become regular bedfellows with more traditional vehicles in The City, but they have generally been equipped with a human safety driver behind the wheel in the event something should go awry.

The new California Department of Motor Vehicles permit allows Cruise to test its fleet totally unmanned.

Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, said the company plans to deploy its cars throughout San Francisco “without gasoline and without anyone at the wheel” by the end of this year.

“It will be a low key, quiet moment. But the echo could be loud,” he wrote in a Medium post Thursday of the years-long effort to reach this milestone.

Cruise secured a permit from the DMV to operate its vehicles with safety drivers in 2015.

Though Cruise is the fifth company to receive the driverless permit — the others are Waymo, Nuro, Zoox and AutoX — Ammann says it will be the first of the self-driving car enterprises to actually use that permit on the streets of a major city, specifically “one of the most difficult driving cities in the world.”.

“But even without a literal launch into the sky, this is our moonshot. And the chaotic, gritty streets of San Francisco are our launchpad,” he wrote. “This is where years of blood, sweat and tears have been poured out by everyone on the Cruise mission.”

Rival Waymo, however, did announce last week plans to expand its driverless ride-hail service in Phoenix.

San Francisco residents shouldn’t expect to see their streets overtaken by driverless vehicles overnight, because the DMV permit limits the scope of what Cruise can do.

According to the agency’s website, Cruise will be allowed to test five autonomous vehicles on specified streets within San Francisco without a driver behind the wheel. The cars are only meant to operate on roads with posted speed limits not exceeding 30 miles per hour, day or night, and they’re not allowed to test when there’s heavy fog or heavy rain.

Details about where Cruise will be testing as well as what other safety precautions it might take during the roll-out have yet to be released.

At the core of Cruise’s mission is a climate change promise, one that’s become all the more critical as COVID-19 has gutted public transit agency budgets and their ability to provide service and prompted many city-dwellers to rely on cars more than they did before the pandemic.

“Single occupant, human-driven, gasoline-powered cars are the second largest contributors of greenhouse gases on Earth,” according to Ammann, and they “spew nearly three times their own weight in carbon dioxide every year.”

Cruise’s electric vehicles don’t rely on gasoline, nor do they emit carbon dioxide, and the company asserts normalizing self-driving cars, “which can be shared safely and efficiently” will reduce congestion “dramatically and permanently.”

Other safety precautions required by the DMV to secure the driverless permit include insurance or a bond equal to $5 million, a law enforcement interaction plan, notification to local governments and high levels of testing standards.

Cruise is also required to notify the DMV of any collision involving a driverless vehicle within 10 days.

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