Being affordable, inoffensive, and homogeneous could be a plus for the startup.

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  • Is Cruise looking to replicate the McDonald’s model but with ride-hailing instead of fast food?
  • The Cruise Origin electric driverless shuttle is displayed during an event in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. The shuttle, called Origin, is designed to be more spacious and passenger-friendly than a conventional human-driven car. The silver squared-off vehicle lacks traditional controls like pedals and a steering wheel, freeing up room for multiple people to share rides.
  • San Francisco natives might take issue with how big this sidewalk is or how free it appears from human excrement.
  • With no driver to worry about, there’s a ton of room in here.
  • The seats are made from the same hard-wearing stuff they use on public transport.
  • You’ll be able to plug stuff in to charge.
  • Drop-off information is displayed on a screen inside the Cruise Origin taxi pod.
  • Driverless Chevy Bolts are a common sight on the streets of San Francisco, where Cruise is based.

Like a lot of autonomous vehicle (AV) developers, Cruise has been having a tough time recently. Slammed by brutalreporting on its technological struggles, the GM-, Honda-, and Softbank-backed firm recently abandoned plans for an ambitious 2019 commercial deployment of its autonomous mobility service. Adding insult to injury, its request for safety-regulation waivers allowing it to deploy a version of its fourth-generation Chevrolet Bolt without human controls has languished at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So when Cruise unveiled its Origin robotaxi at a flashy San Francisco event last week, it was in effect a reboot of the company’s plans under new CEO Dan Ammann, who came over from GM at the end of 2018. Unfortunately, after weeks of hyping a vision of mobility “beyond the car,” Cruise shared almost no details about the Origin, including such basic information as its size, battery capacity, sensor suite, or deployment plans. Though it’s hard to fault Cruise for erring on the side of caution, the resulting confusion and snark about Origin only highlighted how hard it has become to communicate about the autonomous vehicle space.
But even as Cruise seemed to flub its latest big communication effort, it actually provided the answer to a critical question that other AV companies have yet to address: how its robotaxi service is going to compete in an increasingly crowded mobility market. Though largely lost in the soaring, aspirational “beyond the car” messaging, both Ammann’s comments and the Origin’s design subtly illustrated a surprisingly grounded vision for a business that is all too often imagined as sci-fi fantasy. Put simply, it seems that the Origin will be the foundation of a business positioned to become the McDonald’s of mobility.
The same, every time
Though today the iconic fast food chain has become synonymous with a host of attributes, some positive and some less so, its success boils down to two key factors: value and consistency. In a time before Happy Meals and Disney movie-based promotional tie-ins, McDonald’s stood out in a sea of Mom and Pop restaurants by leveraging scale and culture to provide competitive value that was utterly consistent. Some roadside restaurants might have been better, and others were definitely worse, but McDonald’s has always prioritized a consistent experience no matter where in the world you are.
This seems to be how Cruise CEO Dan Ammann envisions his company’s robotaxi service thriving in an increasingly crowded mobility marketplace.
On the value side, Cruise has laid out an ambitious cost target of around $40,000 to $50,000 for its Origin by leveraging the scale of its investor-partners, GM and Honda. Beneath Origin’s orange and black body lies GM’s third-generation battery-electric platform, which will achieve scale by underpinning an entire range of privately owned vehicles. Costs are further spread out by leveraging both GM and Honda’s resources to develop the vehicle itself, giving both automakers a toehold in the robotaxi business for half the cost of doing it themselves.
Inside the Origin lurk yet more hints at how Cruise will provide maximum value for minimum cost. Far from the kind of screen-soaked “business class” interior we see on most futuristic robotaxi concepts, Origin’s cheerfully minimalist interior is built of durable and anti-microbial transit-grade materials. Designed to be easily cleaned and refurbished, the Origin’s million-mile body may not feel like a sci-fi fantasy, but it does seem ready to stand up to the heavy wear and tear endured by any highly utilized shared vehicle.
Its not just about being cheaper than Uber and Lyft to operate
Though Cruise gave the vague estimate that its users would be able to expect a modest $5,000 in annual savings relative to other options in San Francisco (it didn’t specify which other options), Origin’s scale and operational focus aren’t about beating existing ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft on cost alone. In one of the most underappreciated lines of the evening, Ammann said that Origin’s competitive advantage would be a level of consistency that gig-economy drivers could never provide. Like McDonald’s, Cruise is betting that it only takes one or two bad experiences with Uber and Lyft to make a service offering an utterly consistent driving and interior experience a deeply appealing prospect.
At a time when the major ride-hailing companies are struggling with driver churn, a tightening labor market, and rare but horrifying stories of sexual assault (not to mention rampant overuse of allergy-triggering “air fresheners”), the comforting mediocrity of a “McDonald’s of mobility” carries a certain appeal. Every AV developer agrees that the goal is to make vehicles that drive themselves in a boringly safe and reliable manner, so building an autonomous brand experience that reflects the same values makes sense. Next time you book an Uber, ask yourself what kind of premium you’d be willing to pay to guarantee that the vehicle picking you up is a clean, well-lit space with plenty of room, easy ingress and egress, and the cheerily bland ambience of a well-maintained fast food place.
It’s not surprising that this fairly straightforward value proposition wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone watching the Origin unveiling. After all, the event wasn’t so different from a traditional car reveal, and autonomy tends to be subconsciously categorized as a premium car feature rather than something that enables new mobility services (something Cruise was trying to communicate with its “beyond the car” tagline). You wouldn’t want to buy “the McDonald’s of cars” any more than you’d want to buy an Origin, but “The McDonald’s of taxis” certainly has an appeal that works even without the autonomy angle.
Luckily, Cruise still has plenty of time to work on its communications strategy, not to mention its autonomous drive tech, as the Origin is unlikely to be ready for widespread deployment for another 18 months. Hopefully it also takes that time to fix the only real product-level criticism I have of the Origin: its embarrassing lack of wheelchair accommodations, braille displays, and other accessibility features that every modern shared vehicle should have. While the company is working on those important pieces of its business, we’ll all keep doing our part by racking up memorably terrible ride-hailing experiences.
By early 2022 or so, we should all be good and ready for the kind of affordable, inoffensive, and relentlessly homogeneous experience that can only be delivered by a McDonald’s of mobility.
Listing image by Aurich Lawson / Getty Images