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The cruise will soon hit San Francisco with no hands on the wheel

Last week, Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving vehicle developer has expanded a unique service that offers rides for paying passengers in Phoenix – without anyone behind the wheel. Videos shared by Waymo and others show minivans navigating wide, sunny streets with ease.

Now rival Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, has taken a step towards its own self-driving taxi service – on the hilly, winding, pedestrian-flooded streets of San Francisco. On Thursday, Cruise announced that the California Department of Motor Vehicles had given him permission to test up to five of his modified Chevy Bolts without anyone behind the wheel. In a blog post, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said there would be truly driverless cars in town before the end of the year.

Most of the 60+ companies with DMV approval to test autonomous vehicles in California are required to keep at least one safety driver inside to sit behind the wheel and oversee the technology. Four other companies – Waymo, Amazon's Zoox, delivery robot company Nuro, and AutoX – have received approval to test completely driverless vehicles in the state. But no one tests their driverless cars in such hectic areas as San Francisco.

The approval is a sign that companies like Cruise are "stepping out of the technology development phase," said Kyle Vogt, CTO of the company.

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In order not to freak out the neighbors, Cruise says the driverless car rollout will be gradual and will begin in just one neighborhood. it refused to indicate which ones. DMV approval limits the five vehicles to speeds below 30 mph and prohibits operation in heavy fog or heavy rain. The slow rollout will “introduce people to the concept that driverless cars may come,” says Vogt. "Maybe not on the timeline that [people] thought a few years ago, but they come and expect this and begin to get used to it."

Cruise, like much of the industry, has admitted that the technical challenges of self-driving cars are more difficult than expected. It was originally planned to start an autonomous hail service by the end of 2019. Vogt has learned his lesson: He says it is no longer “sensible to set a hard date or time” when fleets of truly driverless vehicles could ferry paying passengers in San Francisco.

According to Vogt: Cruise, one of the challenges is that the vehicle works safely and carefully when, for example, an internal wire is disconnected. It must be known that the car will react safely in a situation for which it has not been trained. To this end, Cruise has been testing driverless cars at a General Motors plant in Michigan for months.

A driverless Chevy Bolt tests at the General Motors proving ground in Milford, Michigan.

Courtesy of Cruise

The Franciscans were not always satisfied with the self-drive tests in their midst. In the five years since Cruise began testing in California, his cars have reportedly been involved in punch fights with taxi drivers and brought at least one faulty golf ball to the windshield. Collision reports published by DMV indicate that California self-driving vehicle tests are occasionally involved in fender benders. The latest reports from September show that cruise vehicles tested in autonomous mode have been retrofitted, bumped and involved in collisions that are reported to sometimes cause neck or back pain to the company's safety drivers. Self-driving proponents say vehicles driven with software will never be perfect, but keep the roads safer than people who are sometimes distracted, tired, or drunk. Neither the San Francisco Mayor's office nor the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Department answered questions about Cruise's new approval.

This future can be hard to imagine, but Cruise has some ideas. Earlier this year, the company held a launch event in San Francisco for a vehicle called Origin, a six-seat electric vehicle designed for autonomous driving and delivery. “It's what you would be building if there weren't any cars,” said Ammann, the CEO.

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