Picture of the Cruise Origin driverless ca
The Cruise Origin has no steering wheel or driver’s seat, can seat up to six passengers and is designed to encourage pooled rides © Cruise

Dubai has become the first city to sign a contract with an autonomous taxi manufacturer, ordering up to 4,000 vehicles from the US driverless car group Cruise with a view to deploying them from 2023.

The deal with Cruise, announced in a tweet from Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed, is aimed at delivering on a promise for a quarter of the city’s transportation to be fully autonomous by 2030.

The crown prince called the deal “the first of its kind worldwide between a government entity and a leading developer of autonomous vehicles”.

The order comes as Dubai, which already operates about 11,000 traditional taxis, is also pushing to become the first city to host flying taxi services. Since 2017 it has partnered with Volocopter, a German aviation start-up that has been trialling its technology in the city.

For Cruise, the General Motors driverless car unit that was valued at $30bn earlier this year, this marks the first time any entity has made a purchase for the Origin, the all-electric vehicle purpose-built for ride-sharing that it unveiled in early 2020. The Origin has no steering wheel or driver’s seat, can seat up to six passengers and is designed to encourage pooled rides.

Mohammed Al Tayer, chair of Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, said in a press release that Dubai selected Cruise after a “multiyear process” concluded that the GM unit had an advantage over rivals thanks to its ability to build the Origin at scale on standard production lines.

“Cruise’s technology, resources, purpose-built vehicle, automaker partnerships, approach to safe testing and deployment, and strategy give them the ability to launch safely and faster than any other company,” Al Tayer said.

Cruise said it would establish a Dubai-based company that would be “fully responsible for the deployment, operation and maintenance of the fleet”. This company will have an exclusive agreement until 2029 to operate driverless ride-hailing services in the city.

The deal suggests lighter regulations could mean that cities outside of the US — where the bulk of driverless groups are based — are the first to actually take the technology mainstream.

GM acquired Cruise for “more than $1bn” in 2016 when it had just 40 employees. The group now has almost 2,000 staff and vies with Waymo, the Google sibling, as the most established “robotaxi” company. 

At present Waymo is the only company to have a truly driverless ride-hailing service in operation for ordinary customers, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Cruise had originally wanted to deploy a driverless service in San Francisco in the summer of 2019, but the plans were indefinitely postponed so more testing could be completed.

In January, Cruise raised $2bn in a new funding round that included Microsoft as an investor. Cruise is majority owned by GM, with backing from Honda and SoftBank, among others.

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