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Cruise Chevy Bolt
Cruise Automation’s self-driving Chevy Bolt took a scenic tour of Seattle, including the Pike Place Market, over the weekend. (Cruise Automation Photo / Stephen Brashear)

The Seattle “tech talk” sponsored this week by GM’s autonomous-vehicle subsidiary, Cruise Automation, had all the hallmarks of a recruiting event for software engineers, plus an extra twist: the self-driving Chevy Bolt that was parked outside the Flatstick Pub in Pioneer Square.

Sure, there was free beer, free food and free mini-golf — but the Bolt drew a crowd as well. And that level of interest tickled Dan Kan, the former Seattleite who went on to become Cruise’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

“Being able to start to see it coming to your city is pretty exciting,” Kan told GeekWire before Monday night’s tech talk and party. “We were just out yesterday, taking some photos, and people wanted to talk to us about it. They wanted to come up and say, ‘Hey, how’s this going to work?’ ”

Actually, Cruise won’t be unleashing any of its autonomous vehicles on the streets of Seattle just yet: The car that was on display at the Flatstick Pub — and at other locales around Seattle over the weekend — was here purely for the photo op. Even when it was driven around town, someone had to be at the wheel.

But Cruise will be setting up an engineering office in the Seattle area, with the aim of having 100 to 200 employees hired by the end of the year. Even though the site of the office hasn’t yet been selected, Cruise is ramping up its hiring in Seattle to take advantage of the region’s high-tech talent and lower cost of living (“lower,” that is, in comparison with Cruise’s home base in San Francisco).

That was the point behind Monday night’s shindig, with the car as guest star. Kan and his team of “Cruisers” converged on the Flatstick Pub to spread the word among more than 100 engineers who caught wind of the event via referrals or social media.

Brian McGowan, CEO of Greater Seattle Partners, said he was thrilled to welcome Cruise to the region. “Our world-class talent pipeline and appetite for innovating technologies of the future makes Greater Seattle an ideal location for Cruise’s expansion,” he said in an email.

Engineers at the event were intrigued. “The driverless-vehicle thing sounds cool,” said Corinna Francis, a senior software engineer at Starbucks, “and it’s driverless rideshare, which is even cooler.”

Francis was interested to hear that Cruise was looking for folks who could focus on the user experience for autonomous vehicles. “It’s good to know that they’re interested in people like me, and not just AI gurus,” Francis said.

Charlie Matlack, who co-founded a clean-water startup called PotaVida in Seattle, was curious about Cruise’s culture.

“It sits in this odd space, where it’s part of a giant, established … and frankly, boring for a tech person … company, but it feels a lot like a startup,” he said.

Kan said it’s natural for that kind of curiosity to crop up. Cruise Automation was founded in 2013 and acquired by GM three years late,r in a deal that was reportedly valued at more than a billion dollars. Since then, the venture’s valuation and employment figures have shot up dramatically, boosted by $2.25 billion in backing from SoftBank and a $2.75 billion partnership with Honda.

“I would call us a pretty large startup, because the way we act and the way that we build things is very focused on ‘What is the biggest problem, and how do we solve it?’ We’re maniacally focused in a lot of senses,” Kan said.

“For us, coming to Seattle, culture is going to be a huge part of building the team up here,” he continued. “When you have 100, 200 new people here, you have to point them all in the right direction, and on the right problem. … That’s part of the reason I’m up here.”

Based on the tech talk, the big challenge for Cruise’s Seattle team will be to find ways to process the hundreds of megabytes of data that stream through each self-driving car’s electronic brain every second while it’s on the road. Machine learning, computer vision and back-end data infrastructure issues were the focus of Monday night’s engineering talks — and the questions that followed.

Dan Kan at Flatstick Pub
Cruise Automation co-founder and chief operating officer Dan Kan takes questions during a tech talk at the Flatstick Pub in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. (Cruise Automation Photo / Stephen Brashear)

One engineer asked how Cruise’s hive-mind navigation system would cope with major traffic disruptions like last weekend’s closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “It starts with understanding what the problems are,” Kan replied. “But ultimately, you’d need to go back out and remap an area.”

Kan said Cruise is on track to start delivering commercial rideshare services in San Francisco by the end of 2019.

“Right now, we’re focused on hiring engineers who are going to help us get to our milestones faster,” he told GeekWire. “The primary driving and testing will be done in San Francisco.”

But he wouldn’t rule out testing the cars in Seattle as well at some point.

“We hope that the team can get spun up pretty quickly and help us deliver on our targets as well as on our future milestones,” Kan said. “We’re really excited about that. Seattle represents an amazing place with a lot of great talent.”

Among the attendees asking questions was Yes Segura, who is an autonomous vehicle transportation planner as well as an Uber driver. He’s studied the potential effects of autonomous driving on issues ranging from parking-space allocation to employment in the transportation industry.

Will the autonomous vehicles being developed by Cruise — and other ventures such as Waymo, Torc and Tesladestroy more jobs than they create? Segura said that’ll be a key question in the years ahead.

“If you know that you’re going to take out a whole slew of people from jobs, you need to start thinking about ways that you can keep some of those drivers, maybe the ones with the highest ratings, who can help with people who are not fully able-bodied.” he said. “We always have to have the human touch.”

Correction for 4:22 p.m. PT Jan. 16: In an earlier version of this report, a photo caption incorrectly referred to the Chevy Volt rather than the Chevy Bolt.

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