Cruise button

I’m in the polished front passenger seat of a new Audi on an empty airstrip at the Alameda Navy yards. The San Francisco skyline and its respective bridges loom across the bay. We’re navigating a course that has been laid out with orange cones. It’s a jagged and testing route, with two sharp 180-degree turns and a straight on its far side to allow the car to stretch its legs a bit. Buckle up.

Kyle Vogt sits in the front seat. But his hands aren’t on the wheel. Every few seconds I get lost in the scenery and our conversation and realize with a jolt that this car is guiding itself. As the founder and CEO of Cruise Automation, a startup which comes out of stealth today, my ‘driver’ has spent seven months with a small team of mostly MIT-educated engineers helping this car drive itself. The wheel turns, jerking and shifting robotically around each bend. Actuators hidden in the footwell control acceleration, braking and steering. A sensor pod is mounted to the top of the car monitoring the cones and surrounding scene and directing the vehicle accordingly.

Cruise isn’t technically a self-driving car. In Vogt’s words it’s a really, really good highway autopilot. Sitting in the car, I see what he means. You could get on the I-5, turn the system on, send emails on your phone for a few hours and arrive in Los Angeles without having to touch a thing. What the Cruise ‘RP-1’ does essentially is keep your car in its lane and in pace with other traffic. The system is designed to be installed aftermarket on a standard vehicle.

But there’s no confusion in it, Vogt wants Cruise to have a place in the self-driving car revolution. “We wanted to start with only the things that we can do well,” he says.

Vogt graduated from MIT with an engineering degree in 2008 and has stayed busy. Cruise is the fifth company he’s founded — after SimpleTXT, Socialcam, Justin.tv, and Twitch. But it’s the first that has engaged his longtime fascination with robotics.

For Cruise, the Google question looms large. I even become self-conscious while talking to Vogt, repeatedly noticing that most of my inquiries start something along the lines of, “So, Google…”

My prodding is received genially. Vogt says that part of what inspired Cruise was beating Google to market. The euphorically regarded driverless car project there dates back ten years. Even with the recent debut of its steering-wheel-free driving pods, we’re still years and years away from this technology being a consumer reality.

“People see Google and think that it’s solved,” Vogt says. “But Google doesn’t always win.” He sees no reason why the rest of the world has to stand in wait for Google to finally tip its hand.

But Vogt also stresses, probably rightly, that Cruise is a beneficiary of Google’s work. The hype directed towards Google self-driving cars has educated the market and put self-driving cars on the cultural radar, big time. Whatever Google’s endgame with the cars — it is unlikely that Google fancies itself as a car manufacturer in the long, long, term — it also isn’t in a hurry to sell them, which creates a lag time for Cruise to take advantage of.

Because if there had been Google cars, Cruise would seem a lot more nuts. But now it gets to follow along on the hype trail that Google has blazed. Even still, this isn’t the easiest road, as it leaves it Cruise against all of the car companies who want to get their own self-driving cars and systems to market.

Cruise, which plans to launch in 2015, might be the most advanced at launch, but it will have a lot of company quickly, inevitably from companies with much deeper pockets. I put to Vogt that Cruise’s technology might one day be a tempting acquisition target for a larger company, but with his maiden launch on the horizon, he brushes such talk away.

Cruise is a baby step for self-driving cars. The RP-1 is a reasonable representation of a best-case commercial scenario for where self-driving cars are at now. You won’t see it take over the freeways next year. The company is opening up presales for its first 50 systems today, which are scheduled to be delivered and installed early next year. Everyone else will make do with a spot on the waiting list. Each unit retails for $10,000 and, for now, only works with Audi’s A4 or S4 models (2012 or later).

Audi Cruise Automation

It’s a narrow opening Cruise has created for itself. But talking to Vogt, he hopes that it will soon get a lot wider. It was important to get something to market as quickly as possible, he says, thereby demonstrating the potential of the technology without taking any major risks. He isn’t releasing any information about Cruise’s investors yet but acknowledges that he hopes this first launch brings more capital to the table.

Cruise hasn’t changed the world with this early product, but sitting in a car directing itself, it’s built something in which it’s hard not to find at least a bit raw delight.

In the long run, if Cruise takes off it could potentially save some of some of the 30,000-plus American lives lost on our nation’s highways each year. But Vogt will settle for helping a few people get their sanity back on the freeway.

“Find me one person who likes traffic,” he laughs.