Cruise taps former Delta executive for COO post as it creeps toward commercialization

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle technology subsidiary of GM, said Friday it has hired Delta Air Lines’ former chief operating officer Gil West as it makes the transition toward early commercialization.

West, who had retired from Delta last year, will become Cruise’s first chief operating officer. The announcement comes more than a month after Cruise launched tests on public roads using autonomous vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel. The testing is still being conducted in a limited geographic area in San Francisco and in one of the city’s less congested neighborhoods, but it is still viewed as a milestone for the company and a necessary step to secure a permit to launch a shared, commercial service that can charge for rides.

West comes to Cruise with more than 12 years pf experience running a massive global operation that had an annual $16 billion budget. During his tenure, he helped Delta grow its earnings per share by more than 15% year-over-year, and led the company’s merger integration with Northwest Airlines.

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, who was president of GM until 2018, said West’s track record of customer experience, operating performance and safety at a large scale makes him “a perfect fit for Cruise as we begin the journey to commercialize our self-driving technology.”

Cruise had once aimed to launch a commercial service using so-called “driverless” vehicles by the end of 2019, but backed off of that timeline — a decision that came after several other autonomous vehicle companies delayed their own plans to launch ride-hailing services that use autonomous vehicles. Cruise has yet to publicly provide a new date for launching a commercial service, the first of which will be in San Francisco.

Cruise, which is also backed by SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price & Associates, has hundreds of autonomous vehicles in its fleet — however, most still have a human safety operator behind the wheel. In November, Cruise started driverless testing — nomenclature meaning the human safety operator has been removed from the driver’s seat — with a fleet of five autonomous vehicles. The rest of Cruise’s fleet is being used to perform its regular testing with a human safety driver, some of which are used to deliver goods to area food banks.

The California DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing in the state, issued Cruise a permit in October that allows the company to test five autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets within San Francisco. Cruise has had a permit to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel since 2015.

In February, Cruise received a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission allowing it to transport passengers in its autonomous vehicles in the state. The CPUC modified its regulations late last year to allow properly permitted companies the ability to charge for shared driverless rides.

Cruise has to show data that it tested driverless rides for a 30-day period before it can qualify for the CPUC permit, according to information on the CPUC website.

West’s hiring comes as that 30-day timeline ends. The executive will be responsible for all of Cruise’s commercial operations, an enterprise that will include managing a fleet of hundreds of vehicles and customer service.

“Cruise is leading the way to change lives and up-end the status quo of transportation,” West said in a statement. “There will be no bigger shift in the transportation industry in my lifetime than the move to self-driving. I’ve been training my entire career for an opportunity like this one.”