Cruise Raises $12.5M From Spark, YC’s Sam Altman For Self-Driving Cars; Poaches Tesla’s Lead on Autopilot

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A few months ago, I took a ride down the 101 in an Audi that had been modified to self-drive down Bay Area highways. The tech was developed by a company called Cruise, which was started by Socialcam founder Kyle Vogt; he did undergraduate research a decade ago in autonomous vehicles. After hitting one out of the park with consumer mobile apps when Socialcam sold to Autodesk for $60 million, Vogt wanted to return to his roots in robotics and mechanical engineering.

As we drove the highway, Vogt pressed a big ‘Cruise’ button installed between the two front seats and took his hands off the wheel. The Cruise system took over and the car started steering on its own as the highway veered toward the right. Vogt couldn’t change lanes because of California state law around autonomous vehicles, but the Cruise system could effectively autopilot us down the freeway.

As we turned around and headed back up north, the car robotically self-drove us past a billboard for a new Lexus model with the slogan “Resistance is futile,” beneath it.

The estimates for when self-driving cars will hit U.S. roads ranges from 2020 all the way into several decades into the future. But with signs that Apple, Tesla, Uber and Google are all closing in on this market, it feels like it’s coming. Cruise is setting itself up as the startup underdog to all these giants.

Today, Cruise is announcing a $12.5 million series A round led by Spark Capital and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, which brings its total funding to $16.8 million. They also just poached Andrew Gray from Tesla as vice president of engineering. Gray previously lead autopilot R&D at Tesla.

The product to date has been a system that converts existing cars into self-driving cars down highways. It has three components. There are sensor units that go on top of the car near the windshield and then there are actuators that control the steering and driving. There’s also a computer that goes in the trunk and takes up about one cubic foot of space. The plan had been to sell Cruise systems for $10,000 each.

But we’ve heard that the company might be shifting toward an entirely different model. Vogt couldn’t comment on this.

“I don’t have any announcements about the product. I just wanted to talk about the hiring and some great new people,” he said. “We are looking for people with any kind of computer vision skills, or who are talented with automotive controls and perception.”