The future of the auto industry isn't horsepower or style when it comes to autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services. It's a box.
The most recent proof of this came Tuesday night with Cruise, a majority-owned subsidiary of General Motors, debuting its first vehicle specifically designed to operate without a driver. The all-electric vehicle, which Cruise is calling Origin, looks similar to autonomous shuttles previously unveiled or tested by other companies but doesn't feature any manual controls that would allow a human to take control in an emergency, such as pedals or a steering wheel.
"It's really promising. I don't think anyone can argue with the premise," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com. It's "not unlike things we have seen at CES in the past," she said.
The shuttle-like vehicle has doors on both sides that open from the center rather than swinging open on hinges, and the vehicle's seats face inward to provide at least as much legroom as "extra legroom" seats on an airplane, Kyle Vogt, Cruise's co-founder, president and chief technology officer, said during the unveiling in San Francisco.
The Origin offers wireless internet and device chargers that passengers can use while they ride, as well as three interior cameras that monitor the safety of people and their cargo on-board. The shared ride should be quiet, since the Cruise Origin is an all-electric vehicle, too.
Cruise's vice president of hardware engineering, Carl Jenkins, told CNBC on Tuesday night that the Origin had to be electric, not just for environmental but budgetary reasons, too. "When you're owning a whole fleet of vehicles, you want the operational costs to be as low as possible. EVs have a much lower operational cost, because there's way fewer parts and fewer moving parts," he noted.
Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Navigant and an engineer, said he expects more companies such as Ford Motor and others to unveil similar vehicles in the coming months and years because they fit the needs of ride-sharing and commercial delivery services.
"This type of vehicle is what we're going to be seeing more of from the companies that are in the AV space," he said, referring to ease of access, spaciousness and other characteristics. "This is exactly the kind of vehicle you need for shared mobility services."
Other companies such as Fiat Chrysler, Toyota Motor and self-driving shuttle services such as May Mobility, Local Motors and Navya have previously shown concept vehicles or deployed similar-looking vehicles.
These types of vehicles are separate from semi-autonomous driver-assist technologies such as Tesla's Autopilot or GM's Super Cruise that are designed for the consumer vehicles. Such shuttles are expected to be used for ride-sharing wherever regulators allow it.
Cruise was working on a cargo-hauling version of the Origin as well, something more like a van than a shuttle, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said at the San Francisco event.
Regarding the common designs, Abuelsamid said, "there's only so much you can do for a box on wheels. However, the key differentiates for Origin compared to similar vehicles from other companies is underneath its boxy exterior, according to Abuelsamid.
Cruise officials described Origin as being modular and designed to last for 1 million miles of driving. That compares to some vehicles, including GM's, that only offer warranties for tens of thousands of miles and last hundreds of thousands if properly maintained.
"It is self-driven. It is all electric. It is shared. It is a production vehicle," Ammann, who formerly served as president of GM, said during the unveiling.
Unlike some similar concept vehicles, Cruise stressed Origin is production-ready. Details about a manufacturing location are expected in the "coming days," according to Ammann.
The vehicle's modular architecture also will allow for the interior of the vehicle to be easily changed and new technologies such as sensors and radars to be added, company officials said. Abuelsamid compared the vehicle to how the aerospace industry designs airplanes.
"The airframes are designed to last 20, 25 or 30 years but every two, three or four years they go through a major overhaul … and revamp a significant portion of the aircraft while keeping the main structure of the plane," he said. "This is something I've been talking about for several years not and it's exactly what Cruise is doing."
A major difference in the design of the vehicle is that it was built to be an autonomous vehicle. Many other shuttle services such as May Mobility use an existing all-electric vehicle architecture that isn't as modular or designed to be operated for extended lengths.
Origin, according to Credit Suisse analyst Dan Levy, is proof that Cruise remains "extremely committed to achieving a first mover advantage in autonomous ridesharing."
"The Origin unveil reminded us that there is much more to achieving AV commercialization than simply taking the driver out, and central to that is achieving automotive grade / proper vehicle integration," he wrote in a note to investors Thursday.
Cruise was light on details regarding the capabilities, timeline and production of Origin, which it claims will be built for roughly half the cost of what a conventional electric SUV costs today. The vehicle easily seats six adults and has a wheel base about the same size of a Honda CRV.
Ammann said a production location will be released in coming days. In a Medium post, he also claimed Cruise's service will, on average, will save a San Francisco household driving themselves or using ridesharing up to $5,000 a year.
The lack of details could be due to the hurdles that remain for autonomous vehicles regarding safety regulations and consumer acceptance, according to officials.
"The hurdle right now isn't really the technology ... the hurdle right now is convincing the public that autonomous technology is safe," said Mike Harley, executive editor of Kelley Blue Book.
While many believe autonomous vehicles can save lives, some have been skeptical about allowing the vehicles on public roads — particularly following a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in March 2018 in Arizona.
Cruise also has previously made ambitious predictions and missed the targets, including testing in New York City and deploying autonomous vehicles at-scale in 2019.
"There have been so many promises about autonomous vehicle technology that haven't come to fruition," Edmunds' Caldwell said. "I think it's hard to really conceptualize this becoming a part of our everyday life."
Cruise has permission to test driverless vehicles on public roads in California, but only if they have a human safety driver on board. Unlike competitors including Waymo, Pony.ai, AutoX and Zoox, Cruise has not secured permits to test driverless vehicles on California's roads without a safety driver.
Origin was designed by Cruise, GM and Honda Motor, which is a minority owner in Cruise. The company has raised $7.25 billion from investors including Honda, SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price Associates. The latest investments, announced in May 2019, valued the company at $19 billion.