General Motors has given itself a deadline of 2019 to roll out a self-driving car service, a feat it would achieve though Cruise, a startup it acquired in 2016. And now Cruise has a new CEO in Dan Ammann, who is leaving his role as president of GM to take the full-time position. Founder Kyle Vogt will become the company’s CTO, effective January 1.
In the tech world, this is a common move, because founders are not always the best suited to take their companies from startups to behemoths. And while Cruise has offered no details yet on where, when, or how its commercial robo-car service will work, it has grown quickly in the past two years, from 40 to more than 1,000 employees. That kind of rapid scale requires a specialized skill set.
GM acquired Cruise in 2016 for a reported $1 billion, three years after Vogt started it with Dan Kan. (Since the acquisition, Cruise has maintained most of its independence, remaining in San Francisco and taking investments from Softbank and Honda to help fund its efforts.) The startup’s original goal was to make an aftermarket highway autonomy system, similar to Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise. The company announced a $10,000 retrofit kit in 2014, but then ditched the idea to focus on a fully autonomous system, the sort that never requires human intervention. As GM recognized the swiftly shifting automotive future—and as Google began proving self-driving tech was a real thing—the automotive giant scooped up Cruise to accelerate its R&D.
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As CTO, Vogt, who also cofounded the live streaming platform Twitch, will continue to lead the engineering effort, which remains Cruise’s most pressing concern. To date, no one has proven that a self-driving car can operate safely and efficiently on public roads, and even a commercial launch won’t mark a finish line.
“The technology isn’t done the day the first car without a driver turns on,” Vogt says. “We’ll make it smarter, and lower the cost, and do even better on safety and pretty much any dimension you can measure. That’ll be a continuous and ongoing investment.” New hires, he says, are still mostly engineers, and will be “for the foreseeable future.”
Still, it’s time to think about the next phase of the business, one that benefits from a different sort of leadership, and Ammann has played a central role in GM’s revival over the past decade. He advised GM through its restructuring, when he was Morgan Stanley’s head of industrial investment banking, then joined the automaker full time in 2010 to manage its IPO. He became GM’s CFO in 2011 and its president in 2014. In the past few years, the New Zealand native has led the sale of Opel and the restructuring of GM Korea. He got GM back in the financing business with the launch of GM Financial. He also led the acquisition of Cruise.
So Ammann’s transition to Cruise emphasizes how important the self-driving arm is to the automaker; it also highlights the challenge Cruise faces as it shifts from development to deployment.
That transition requires far more than engineering prowess. It means working with regulators and public officials, building supply chains to produce huge fleets of robo-cars, developing a dispatch system, exploring pricing models, understanding how to maintain a fleet of commercial vehicles, and more. Most of these are new for GM, which, like all automakers, has historically stopped thinking about customers the moment they drive off the lot.
“We agreed right from the outset that this technology only matters if we deploy it at massive scale, globally,” Ammann says. Now he’s the man in charge of making that happen.