Cruise doubles down on hardware

The GM-back self-driving car company to dedicate its 140,000-square-foot Bryant Street building to hardware team

Ten months ago, Cruise declared it would hire at least 1,000 engineers by the end of the year, an aggressive target — even for a company with a $7.25 billion war chest — in the cutthroat autonomous vehicle industry, where startups, automakers and tech giants are battling over talent.

What Cruise didn’t talk about then — or since — was who it planned to hire. The assumption was that Cruise was aiming for software engineers, the perception, planning and controls, simulation and mapping experts who would help build the “brain” of its self-driving cars. And that has certainly been one objective.

Cruise, a subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, automaker Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, now employs more than 1,700 people, a considerable chunk of whom are software engineers.

Cruise has embarked on another initiative over the past 18 months that isn’t as well known. The company is building out a team of hardware engineers so large that, if successful, it will get its own building. Today, the first fruits of that mission are toiling away in an ever-expanding lab located in the basement of Cruise’s Bryant Street building in San Francisco. 

The basement won’t hold them for long — if Cruise gets its way. The company plans to dedicate the Bryant Street location, a 140,000-square-foot building that once served as its headquarters, to the hardware team, according to sources familiar with Cruise’s plans.

Some software engineers will remain at Bryant Street. But the bulk of Cruise’s software team and other employees will move to 333 Brannan Street, the former Dropbox headquarters that the company took over in 2019.

Cruise wouldn’t provide specific employment numbers for its hardware or software teams. A glimpse at its current job openings, as well as other resources such as LinkedIn, suggests that it has amassed more than 300 employees dedicated to hardware. At least 10% of those people were hired in the past 90 days, according to a review of LinkedIn’s database. 

And it’s not done hiring. There are more than 160 open positions posted on Cruise’s website. About 106 are for software-related jobs and 35 are for hardware engineers. The remaining 24 positions are for other departments, including government, communications, office and security.

Hardware HQ

Below the airy, sunlit dining hall and the garage that houses Cruise’s self-driving test vehicles, hundreds of hardware engineers are developing everything from sensors and network systems to the compute and infotainment system for its present and future vehicles.

The upshot: Cruise is developing hardware as aggressively as its software with an eye toward future vehicles. The world will likely get the first glimpse of that future-looking hardware handiwork at Cruise’s “Beyond the Car” event that will be held late Tuesday in San Francisco. 

Cruise’s value has largely been wrapped up in its software. Even six years ago, when the company was founded with a plan to develop an aftermarket kit that could be retrofitted to existing cars to give them automated highway driving capabilities, Cruise was a software company.

GM’s venture team had been tracking Cruise since early 2014, according to sources familiar with the company’s early history. But it wouldn’t be until Cruise abandoned its aftermarket kit to focus on developing an autonomous vehicle capable of city driving that the relationship would bloom.

It was then that Cruise realized it needed deeper expertise in integrating hardware and software. By late 2015, talks with GM had progressed beyond fact-finding. GM announced it acquired Cruise in March 2016.

With GM as its parent, Cruise suddenly had access to a manufacturing giant. GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV would become the platform Cruise would use for its self-driving test vehicles. Today, Cruise has about 180 test vehicles, most of which can be seen on public roads in San Francisco.

Cruise has always employed hardware engineers. But a more focused effort on hardware development and systems integration began in early 2018 after Cruise hired Carl Jenkins as vice president of hardware and Brendan Hermalyn as director of autonomous hardware systems.

Around the same time, GM announced it would build production versions of the Cruise AV — a vehicle that would be built from the ground up to operate on its own with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls — at its Orion Township assembly plant in Michigan. Roof modules for the self-driving vehicles would be assembled at its Brownstown plant. The automaker said it would invest $100 million in the two Michigan plants to prepare for production. GM’s Orion factory already produces the Chevy Bolt EV and the third-generation test versions of Cruise’s autonomous vehicle.

Six months later, the companies announced that Honda would commit $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle.

Systems approach

Systems integration would become more important than ever. Hermalyn, who previously worked as the camera lead at Waymo, is one of the primary drivers of this pursuit.

To say Hermalyn is passionate about systems integration might be an understatement. In an hour-long interview last year, he frequently leaned on the term, exclaiming at one point, while standing amongst a row of test vehicles, that the “most exciting thing is the integration.” He has also published a blog post that describes Cruise’s philosophy and approach to building a system that can conduct real-time, safety-critical sensing and perception tasks at scale. 

The ability to integrate hardware and software is critical for the safe operation of autonomous vehicles, and it is a common pursuit among AV developers. But the scale of Cruise’s effort, along with the fact that the team is developing much of these hardware components in house, illustrates how important this area has become for the company.

Cruise hardware development is focused on the entire AV topology, which includes the sensors, compute, network systems, connectivity, infotainment and UX.

A Cruise autonomous vehicle Saturday, January 12, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear for Cruise)

While Cruise does some early-stage manufacturing in house, Hermalyn stressed that Cruise isn’t trying to go it alone.

“We’re lucky to have General Motors and Honda as partners,” he said during TechCrunch’s interview with him in October. “We’re able to leverage their expertise in vehicle engineering, and collaborate with them throughout the development process to seamlessly integrate that AV topology into the completed vehicles assembled on the factory production line.”

The baffle on the camera system on Cruise’s vehicle is just one tiny example of this partnership developed with GM. It’s here that a self-cleaning system has been developed and installed. Other hardware development included a bumper that better integrates sensors, mounts and lidar. Cruise acquired lidar startup Strobe in 2017.

“Our goal is to make it the fastest, not to make everything,” Hermalyn later added. “We obviously use a supplier to manufacture them, we don’t want to have the Geppetto problem where we’re stuck making one by one.”

Back in October when TechCrunch visited Cruise’s office, the basement lab was in flux. Certain areas were jammed and preparations to expand had clearly begun.

That lab build-out has continued. The hardware team is particularly focused on sensor development and is conducting some “low volume manufacturing capabilities for rapid maturation of hardware,” he said in a followup email.

“It’s not that different from what the aerospace industry has done,” Hermalyn said of the systems approach. But how you solve that I think is the unique part. With our partners, we’re able to go after these systems problems and be able to address that in the marketplace.”