Look out, Uber and Lyft: GM is quietly building a robo-taxi service in San Francisco

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A GM Cruise autonomous test vehicle is parked at a new charging station in San Francisco on Monday, July 2, 2018.
A GM Cruise autonomous test vehicle is parked at a new charging station in San Francisco on Monday, July 2, 2018. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

General Motors has created its own ride-hailing platform and quietly built one of the largest charging stations in the U.S. to get its Cruise self-driving car unit ready to enter the robo-taxi business next year.

Cruise has installed 18 fast chargers in a parking facility near San Francisco's Embarcadero, the well-trafficked boulevard along the city's eastern shoreline where Uber and Lyft have busy drivers. And GM's self-driving car unit has been testing its own Cruise Anywhere ride-hailing app and fleet-management system, said people familiar with the matter.

The largest U.S. automaker has long planned to start a ride-hailing business using self-driving cars by 2019, but it hasn't said where the service would start or whether it will work with a partner. These latest moves show that the Golden Gate City is where GM is assembling the pieces to launch its own rival to Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo next year if the Detroit-based company decides against working with an established livery app like Uber's or Lyft's.

"It's an indication that Cruise is getting ready to commercialize autonomous ride-hailing services for the public and it will be in San Francisco," said Grayson Brulte, co-founder of autonomy consulting firm Brulte & Co. "I imagine they would want to own and operate the service."

A GM spokesman said only that the automaker is still working toward commercializing its self-driving car service and that the company hasn't decided whether to own the business or find partners. He declined to comment on the location.

What's clear is that GM is building the resources to manage both the cars and the interface with consumers. Its ride-sharing platform could be used on its own or be tailored to interface with a partner, one person said.

Cruise has emerged as one of Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra's top initiatives since GM acquired it in 2016. The business got a big boost in late May when Japan's SoftBank Vision Fund agreed to buy a 19.6 percent stake in Cruise for $2.25 billion—more than half of which is contingent on having autonomous vehicles prepared for commercial use.

The automaker is also doing some early exploration into whether a tracking stock or an initial public offering would make sense once the business is established, people familiar with the matter said in June.

GM's fast chargers are near the Embarcadero because it's a popular location for ride-hailing services. The site will help Cruise quickly recharge its self-driving cars, which are heavily modified Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles.

In addition to Cruise, GM has been testing new business models beyond traditional automaking. Its Maven car-sharing unit rents Bolts to Lyft and Uber drivers, helping the company learn to use electric vehicles for business fleets, said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst with Navigant Research.

"We can expect to see more of this as GM launches automated mobility services," Abuelsamid said.

GM invested $500 million in Lyft in January 2016. Dan Ammann, the automaker's president, sat on the ride-hailing company's board until June.

Most charging stations have a handful of stalls for cars, making GM's San Francisco site one of the bigger banks in the country, Abuelsamid said. The largest in the U.S. is Tesla's station in Kettleman City, California, with 40 chargers, said Steve Loveday, a writer and editor with InsideEVs.com, a website covering the electric car market. Tesla has a few others with more than 20 ports, he said.

GM has also been working with California to get rules in place to facilitate its commercialization pilot. In May, the California Public Utilities Commission cleared the way for companies like Cruise to test self-driving vehicles with the public, but they rejected the request to let companies bill people for rides. Cruise is still seeking approval to do so, said one person.

While most autonomous vehicles, such as those being tested by Uber, have human monitors on board, GM has said it plans to launch its pilot using a version of its Cruise AV with no steering wheel or pedals if they feel the car is safe for public use. It also depends on California regulations allowing the service to run without a safety driver, the company said.

Cruise is also hiring for some key positions. On its website, the unit lists an opening for a head of business operations who will help develop GM's commercialization strategy for self-driving cars. Cruise is also recruiting for several fleet-management jobs.

The first program will start late next year. GM will gauge progress and look to expand if it's successful.

"Barra is trying to transform GM from car company to mobility-services company," Brulte said. "She's building her legacy."

—David Welch, Mark Bergen and Noah Buhayar, Bloomberg News

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