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GM’s Cruise Origin is not like other autonomous cars

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Rarely has “form follows function” been so fitting as with the Cruise Origin, the autonomous taxi pod that the GM and Honda-backed transportation company revealed this week. It’s a far cry from most of the self-driving concepts we’ve seen before, swoopingly futuristic vehicles fit for a sci-fi movie. That’s not from a lack of design attention, however: indeed, everything about the Origin is painstakingly intentional.

Cruise isn’t talking about when its ride-hailing service might actually be launching yet, or where that’ll happen initially. It has some bold boasts about how affordable the Origin will be – roughly half of an electric SUV like the Tesla Model X, apparently – but no actual figures.

At this point we’d be ready to consign the project to the “far fetched” tray, were it not for Cruise’s backers. General Motors – which acquired Cruise in early 2016, though has left it relatively independent since – and more recently Honda may not be the first names you think of when you consider autonomous driving, but they certainly know how to pump out affordable, mass-produced cars. That, Bryan Nesbitt, Executive Director of Global Architecture and Global Advanced Design at GM, explained to me, is why the trio works.

“For us, this was basically a dedicated white paper study,” Nesbitt says. “We started from the very base of what is the experience today, how could it be improved, and what are really the solution sets to enable that improvement?”

What the Origin isn’t is a Bolt EV – Chevy’s all-electric hatchback – with a boxy body slapped on top. “Everything’s very dedicated, a very dedicated execution,” Nesbitt insists. “Now we’ve got a lot of equity in battery-electric, with the Bolt, and of course that’s a big enabler in the construction of the platform. So the flat floor, getting things low for entry and egress, it’s a big enabler. And then with a dedicated electrical architecture you can move things around a lot.”

Platform sharing between automakers isn’t new, but when it comes to the brave new world of autonomous driving we’ve already seen fiefdoms spring up. Traditional car-makers seem simultaneously obsessed with, and terrified by, the idea of driverless vehicles. On the one hand it’s a whole new market; on the other, a massive step away from the status-quo. The idea of challenging that preconception, while also working with Honda, is something Nesbitt argues has fallen together relatively straightforwardly.

“It’s a partnership and collaboration,” the GM exec told me. “Certainly Cruise is here in the heat of collecting all the data, and they understand the users. We’re collecting all that information and trying to look at different scenarios of what are the solution sets, and then working with Honda on how to execute those solution sets.”

“At a high level we’re bringing our EV experience in chassis development,” Nesbit explains. “Honda’s experience in a lot of closures areas, and body areas. And then of course integrating all the hardware and software relative to Cruise.”

As for the boxy shape, that too was very intentional: not least for how it allowed Cruise’s engineers to place their sensor pods. “We wanted everything high and on the ends so that it doesn’t get damaged, expensive stuff doesn’t get damaged, and it’s a better field of view,” Carl Jenkins, Vice President of Hardware at Cruise, told me. “And it’s easier to replace: it allows the vehicle to get off and do high volume, long mileage, and that allows me to be able to swap and change as much as possible.”

Modularity is key to the ethos of the Origin, and to its value proposition. On the one hand, being able to upgrade each vehicle as new sensors and other technologies come online – or for more mundane things, like broken body panels – means Cruise can keep them on the road longer. Each Origin is promised to have a lifespan of over a million miles.

It also helps keep the costs down, since the rapid pace of autonomous technology evolution could easily mean this year’s Origin is outdated twelve months from now. “This is very modular because we’re going to constantly upgrade, because we’re driving new design in sensors ourselves and onto the marketplace,” Jenkins says. “There’s lots of very interesting startup companies. There’s lots of very interesting established ones, deciding whether they want to be part of this game or not. So we’re going to embrace the use of that.”

Such an approach gives Cruise the flexibility to target the relatively “low hanging fruit” first in terms of deployments. “First of all it’s going to be urban environments that have okay weather,” Jenkins says. “Then we want to bring in more extreme weather conditions. So that that drives another set of sensor requirements again.”

For the automotive industry, where car development lifecycles are typically measured in several year increments, Cruise’s pace is an outlier. We’re talking sensors being switched out in a matter of weeks, as the company finds a balance between performance, price, and packaging. What’s inside those owl-inspired rotating sensor pods, or their counterparts fixed elsewhere in the Origin’s bodywork, is flexible by design.

“I can’t even say whether it’s camera, radar, or LIDAR,” Jenkins told me when I asked what sort of sensors the vehicle shown off this week was equipped with, “because I can tell you that even in the last few weeks we’ve changed that and we’ve actually got rid of one of those.”

What’s interesting isn’t just how much of GM and Honda’s expertise filters down to Cruise, but what of the technology Cruise is developing will – and won’t – be shared with its heavyweight backers. You won’t, for example, see the Origin’s sensor pods on a GM vehicle, Jenkins confirms, though that’s not to say the tech behind them won’t.

“Do we work together,” the former chief engineer for Google’s self-driving car project explained, “on some of the compute and sensor technologies that could make sense for Super Cruise and whatever their need is? Of course we do, that’s economies of scale as well.”

Down the line, Cruise might even branch out into selling its sensor technology to other companies making autonomous vehicles, Jenkins told me, or indeed anything else that demands high-performance tracking and mapping abilities.

Today, exactly how Cruise’s eventual ride-hailing service will operate has more questions than answers. The company has been operating a closed beta with its Bolt EV-based prototypes in San Francisco for more than a year now, driving Cruise employees around the peninsula though with a human safety driver poised at the wheel, and the city would seem an obvious place for a commercial service to start out, too. That’s something the company isn’t willing to talk about yet, however.

What we do know is that Cruise will be responsible for the operations and maintenance of the service and its vehicles. The fleet will likely be stored in underground parking garages – that, Jenkins says, defined the Origin’s maximum height of 80-inches – where it will presumably be charged and cleaned. Much as the exterior strikes a practical balance, so the interior was crafted with shared use in mind, but without wearing that too conspicuously on its sleeve.

“We were designing the materials to comprehend all those situations: the spills, someone gets sick, whatever those scenarios are,” GM’s Nesbitt says. “We wanted something very inviting on the material side, something home-like, so that it didn’t feel shared.”

How soon before we can try that out for ourselves? Cruise says to expect an announcement about production location for Origin soon, but it’s unclear what sort of timelines that will follow. GM has said it aims to have 20 new electric vehicles by 2023, spread across its various nameplates, and of which Origin is believed to be just one. If all goes to plan, though, it could end up being the most interesting of the lot.

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Waymo recreated fatal crashes putting its software at the wheel – Here’s how it did

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Waymo is tackling the safety issue of autonomous vehicles head-on, using simulations to replay fatal crashes but replacing the human driver involved with the Alphabet company’s software, to show what the Waymo Driver would’ve done differently. The research looked at every fatal accident recorded in Chandler, Arizona – where the Waymo One driverless car-hailing service currently operates – between 2008 and 2017.

“We excluded crashes that didn’t match situations that the Waymo Driver would face in the real world today, such as when crashes occurred outside of our current operating domain,” Trent Victor, Director of Safety Research and Best Practices at Waymo, explains. “Then, the data was used to carefully reconstruct each crash using best-practice methods. Once we had the reconstructions, we simulated how the Waymo Driver might have performed in each scenario.”

In total, there were 72 different simulations that the system needed to handle. In those where there were two cars involved, Waymo modeled each in two ways. First, where the Waymo Driver was in control of the “initiator” vehicle, which initiated the crash, and then again with it as the “responder” vehicle, which responds to the initiator’s actions. That took the total to 91 simulations.

The Waymo Driver avoided every crash as initiator – a total of 52 simulations – Waymo says. That was mainly down to the computer following the rules of the road that human drivers in the actual crashes did not, such as avoiding speeding, maintaining a gap with other traffic, and not running through red lights or failing to yield appropriately.

On the flip side, where the Waymo Driver was the responder, it managed to avoid 82-percent of the crashes in the simulations. According to Waymo’s Victor, “in the vast majority of events, it did so with smooth, consistent driving – without the need to brake hard or make an urgent evasive response.”

In a further 10-percent of the simulations, the Waymo Driver was able to take action to mitigate the crash’s severity. There, the driver was 1.3-15x less likely to sustain a serious injury, Waymo calculates.

Finally, in the remaining 8-percent of crashes simulated, the Waymo Driver was unable to mitigate or avoid the impact. They were all situations where a human-operated vehicle struck the back of a Waymo vehicle that was stationary or moving at a constant speed, this “giving the Waymo Driver little opportunity to respond,” Victor explains.

That is equally important, Waymo argues, because when they finally launch in any significant number, autonomous vehicles are going to have to coexist with human drivers on the road for some time to come. Those human drivers can’t be counted on to follow the same rules as stringently as Waymo’s software demands.

Waymo has released a paper, detailing its findings. Part of the challenge for assessing autonomous vehicles, it argues, is that high-severity collisions are thankfully relatively rare in the real world. As such, “evaluating effectiveness in these scenarios through public road driving alone is not practical given the gradual nature of ADS deployments.”

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2022 Genesis G70 Launch Edition previews sport sedan refresh

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Genesis has revealed the new 2022 G70 Launch Edition, the first of the refreshed versions of its compact sports sedan to land in the US, looking handsome with the automaker’s striking new design language. Announced last October, Genesis’ smallest sedan will debut initially in the form of the limited-production 2022 G70 Launch Edition, with only 500 expected to be offered.

Where the old G70 had a squared-off fascia, this updated version is a lot softer in its angles. The bottom edge of the oversized shield-shaped front grille now comes to a point in the lower fascia, rather than being flat, while that lower grille section is more muscular and contoured.

It’s the headlamps, though, which are the biggest departure. They get Genesis’ new signature quad-LED element, with dual horizontal daytime running lamp lines on each side. It’s something we’ve seen the automaker put to good use on its larger sedans, and on SUVs like the new GV80.

Genesis says the new G70 is lower and wider at the front end, while the profile of the sedan is sharper, too. At the rear, the trunk lid has been smoothed out, with a more distinctive integrated spoiler. The taillamp clusters, meanwhile, have a more angular appearance, echoing the quad LED light signature at the front. Altogether it looks tidier and more focused than the outgoing car.

Inside, meanwhile, the changes are more subtle. The dashboard shape in general has been carried over, with dedicated HVAC control knobs, a physical transmission shifter, and a multifunction steering wheel. However there’s now a new 10.25-inch HD display atop the dashboard, replacing the old 8-inch version.

That gets the graphics from Genesis’ more recent models, a huge improvement compared to the Hyundai-donated software UI in the last-gen G70. There’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the driver gets an 8-inch HD digital gauge cluster flanked by analog dials.

As for what’s under the hood, don’t expect a departure from the existing engines. That includes the optional 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6, with 365 horsepower. The entry engine is a carry-over of the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, with 252 horsepower. An 8-speed automatic is likely to be standard; the six-speed manual gearbox Genesis once offered won’t be making an appearance.

Genesis will keep the options simple for the Launch Edition: it’ll only offer the sedan in Verbier White or Melbourne Grey matte paint. 19-inch black wheels will be standard, as will a red leather interior. Although you’ll be able to pick RWD or AWD, the G70 Launch Edition will only be offered with the more potent V6 engine, Car & Driver reports.

Pricing is yet to be confirmed, though the current G70 starts at just north of $37k. Reservations for the Launch Edition are open now, with the first cars set to arrive in the US come the spring.

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GMC Hummer EV SUV reveal dated: Watch the electric pickup go sideways on ice

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GMC will reveal its second Hummer EV variant in just a few weeks time, with the SUV version of the all-electric super truck promising an alternative body-style to the original pickup. The GMC Hummer EV SUV will be unveiled on April 3, the automaker confirmed today, though this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the new version.

Back in July 2020, in fact, GMC teased what we could expect from the SUV body. As you might expect, it’s the same bold lines and chunky styling from the front back to roughly the C-pillars.

However unlike the pickup’s roughly 5 foot long bed, the SUV will have an enclosed cargo area. That will allow for a spare wheel to be mounted on the tailgate. We’re still expecting to see removable roof panels, allowing most of the top of the electric truck to be opened up, though final cargo capacity will have to wait until the official reveal.

As for what’s underneath the sheet metal, there we’re unlikely to see GMC straying too far from the architecture of the Hummer EV pickup. Based on GM’s Ultium platform for electric vehicles, that includes up to three motors and 1,000 horsepower in total, depending on trim. Torque vectoring – where power is individually controlled in its delivery to each rear wheel – and a “CrabWalk” mode that allows the trunk to track diagonally at low speeds in off-road or tight parking lot conditions are also supported.

0-60 mph should come in around 3 seconds for the most potent Hummer EV, GMC has said, while range will be up to around 350 miles on a charge. 800V DC fast charging with support for up to 350 kW should mean 100 miles of range added in just 10 minutes.

While GMC is launching the pickup version with the limited-availability 2022 Hummer EV Edition 1 first, it has more affordable versions planned for 2022 and beyond. That’s likely to be the same strategy the automaker takes with the electric SUV, with premium pricing and a heavily constrained supply to begin with. Reservations for the SUV will open on April 3, GMC has said.

As for progress on the electric pickup, GMC says it has been undertaking winter testing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, making ample use of the snow and ice to see how the all-wheel drive holds up. That also includes testing of the electronic stability control and traction control.

Production of the 2022 Hummer EV pickup is expected to begin in the fall, GMC says, with initial deliveries before the end of the year.

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