Cruise CEO: Self-driving car market is ‘literally trillions of dollars’

Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, the self-driving technology subsidiary of GM, is planning to hit the streets of San Francisco this month after receiving permission from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles in October to run fully unmanned vehicle tests there.

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech virtual conference on Tuesday, Ammann showed a video of a couple of Cruise’s autonomous cars—still featuring human backup drivers—zipping through the busy city. The demo displayed a representation of the cars’ fields of vision, including Cruise’s computer-modeling of routes, traffic, pedestrians, and other urban obstacles.

Ammann called the DMV’s approval “a real milestone in terms of the technical progress that we’ve made.” He said it represents the beginning of a transition “from R&D mode to the earliest stages of commercialization.”

Last year Cruise indefinitely postponed a commercial, autonomous ride-hailing service it had planned to roll out in San Francisco by the end of 2019. Leaders in the young, buzzy industry have had to temper initially exuberant timeline estimates as they focus on safety and satisfying regulators.

The complexity of the task ahead is not lost on Ammann. “San Francisco is one of the most demanding and challenging driving environments,” he said.

“Some might ask me, ‘Why are we doing this in such a difficult place?’” Ammann continued. “The short answer is that our cities are where the transportation crisis is most severe, and that’s where we believe we can have the biggest impact with this technology. It’s the place where we need to figure out how to make this happen.”

Although Cruise’s rivals, such as Alphabet’s Waymo and Amazon’s Zoox, plus startups AutoX and Nuro, received earlier permission to pilot unmanned cars in the state, none have been testing their tech in such a frenetic environment as the foggy city.

The business opportunity is a large one. Asked to quantify the potential market in terms of revenue, Ammann said, “It’s literally measured in the trillions of dollars.” To be exact: $8 trillion.

That explains why SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Honda plunked down more than a billion dollars of investment in Cruise last year. The fundraising round propelled Cruise’s private market valuation to $19 billion.

But there’s much work to be done before those riches can be realized. “It’s a big moment on the one hand,” Ammann said of Cruise’s San Francisco testing, “but it’s just another waypoint on a much, much longer journey.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Cruise had already begun fully unmanned vehicle testing in San Francisco. The company said it is planning to start these tests before the end of the year.

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