Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt traveled from San Francisco to Austin for South by Southwest this week eager to share updates on the driverless car company backed by General Motors. Among the items on Vogt’s brag list: Its fleet of robotaxis recently surpassed the one million miles driven mark, and, one year after deploying two autonomous cars without safety drivers behind the steering wheel, Cruise now has roughly 160 completely driver-free vehicles navigating public roads.
But Vogt’s biggest news involved the 6-passenger Origin shuttle, which has no steering wheel, brakes or other human controls on board. Cruise will begin testing the Origin on public roads in Austin within weeks, Vogt said.
This appears to have been news not only to the attendees of SXSW, but to federal regulators, who have been scrutinizing Cruise’s plans to deploy the futuristic-looking vehicle.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has “reached out” to GM to discuss Cruise’s announcement, a spokesperson told Fortune.
Cruise had submitted a petition to the NHTSA in February 2022 seeking an exemption from federal safety standards for the Origin, but according to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the agency sent Cruise a list of questions in January and is in no hurry to give Cruise its blessing.
A Cruise spokesperson however, told Fortune that the company is permitted test Origins on public roads through the federal FAST Act, which does not require NHTSA approval. Cruise says the Origin shuttles will hit the streets in Austin in the coming weeks, with the first several being used for testing and validation. The public will be able to ride in the vehicles “in a matter of months,” the company says.
The situation underscores the evolving and unsettled framework around autonomous driving, and the tension between the companies racing to commercialize the technology and concerns over the safety and reliability of the technology.
Vogt, in an interview with Fortune at SXSW this week, expressed a desire to work with the NHTSA, which he portrayed as a well-meaning agency constrained by outdated regulations.
“On the federal level, we you know, we’re not blocked on any major permits or regulations for operating our vehicles, but for the vehicle without a steering wheel, that’s new,” Vogt said. “And, you know, NHTSA, great regulatory agency focused on the right thing, focused on safety, kind of saddled with these rules that were written probably in the ’60s and ’70s. So we’re trying to work with them and figure out the best way to translate or update or get exemptions for those rules.”
By declaring plans to test Origin vehicles in Austin however, Vogt seems to be sending a signal that Cruise does not believe it needs to negotiate.
The NTHSA confirmed that it was still in the process of evaluating Cruise’s request for an exemption and that it is awaiting answers from the company regarding questions about safety issues that have been raised. But the agency also acknowledged that it could not necessarily stop Cruise from moving ahead. “It should be noted that current law provides additional paths for manufacturers to operate ADS-equipped, non-compliant vehicles on public roads,” the NHTSA said in a statement.
Cruise appears to be relying on a clause in the FAST Act, a 2015 Department of Transportation law to fund surface transportation projects, which allows exemptions for “testing or evaluation” of non-compliant vehicles so long as the manufacturer does not sell them after the testing period.
Cruise is manufacturing the Origin vehicles in Michigan at GM’s Factory Zero, a facility dedicated to electric vehicles that received $1 billion in state tax incentives. “There’s really no fundamental bottlenecks on the technology side or scaling side that are going to hold back building cars,” Vogt said.
Until now, Cruise has been testing the Origins on a Concord, California test track that features props of buildings, cars, pedestrians and cyclists.
To some critics, that’s where autonomous cars belong for the time being. As Fortune previously reported, autonomous cars operated by Cruise and Alphabet-subsidiary Waymo have been involved in numerous worrisome traffic incidents in San Francisco and Austin. The incidents range from autonomous cars unexpectedly stopping in the middle of intersections, to vehicles turning into bike lanes.
In January, San Francisco transportation officials sent protest letters to California’s Public Utilities Commission, urging state regulators to slow down expansion of autonomous vehicles in the city.
Vogt said that Cruise has encouraged stakeholders and public officials to scrutinize and ask questions. “We’ve demonstrated our willingness and ability to work with cities, figure out what the challenges are that they’re facing and very quickly improve or eliminate those, and we’re going to continue to do that. The challenge with a lot of these letters, or even their metrics and statistics—they’re backwards.”
He went on to say that the technology is improving so quickly, that the letters and other public scrutiny fail to capture what’s happening on the streets today. The company’s internal research of San Francisco riders found that 47% of people are apprehensive about getting into an autonomous vehicle for the first time. After riding in a Cruise, 92% of people begin to feel a sense of safety.
The job for Cruise isn’t to change people’s minds, Vogt said. “It’s really just like letting them experience it and come to their own conclusions about not only how safe and good but how beneficial this technology is going to be to their life on a daily basis.”