GM, Honda are betting Cruise founder Kyle Vogt can lead the autonomous car pack

SAN FRANCISCO — Kyle Vogt was 14 when he saw the light, sitting behind the wheel of his father’s car as it crossed the arrow-straight highways of the American Southwest.

“I had my learner’s permit and as I was driving from our home in Kansas to Las Vegas for a remote-controlled battle-bot competition and I thought, ‘Surely this can be done by robots, just read the lane markers and keep the wheel steady,’” Vogt says with a laugh. “So that was the beginning.”

Nearly two decades later, Vogt, 32, has made that epiphany his mission in life.

As founder and CEO of Cruise, a self-driving automotive tech company that General Motors bought for $1 billion in 2016, Vogt has sped to the front of the autonomous car pack thanks most recently to a big partnership deal with Honda.

There are dozens of car companies and tech startups tackling the self-driving car space, given that ride-hailing fleets with no drivers promise untold riches assuming tech costs and car ownership both decline.

But Cruise arguably has only one main competitor: Alphabet-owned Waymo, which has been at this for a decade, and for a year now has been busily testing hundreds of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix.

Waymo is aiming to make its beta-testing program public this year.

Cruise is aiming to start picking up passengers here in its Chevy Bolt-based self-driving cars sometime in 2019.

Vogt is vague on whether the program will be limited to a select group of riders at first, in an echo of Waymo’s current beta program.

But he wishes to make one thing clear: Cruise’s testing across this hilly, traffic-snarled city will ultimately yield more capable robot cars.

That’s because since 2016, Cruise has deployed a small group of cars (at first 50, now 20) on what he describes as the comparatively easy-to-navigate streets of Phoenix. 

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