For autonomous vehicle startup Cruise, the future isn’t just about artificial intelligence. It’s about machine learning, and that’s why Cruise is teaching its electric vehicles to drive themselves in San Francisco – one of the most complicated urban environments for self-driving cars to operate in.
“Learning how to drive in San Francisco is amazing for AI,” said Hussein Mehanna, the company’s head of AI, noting that the dense and unpredictable streets are ultimately an advantage. “The more interesting the data, the more the machine can learn.”
Mehanna hopes that learning will not only revolutionize autonomous driving, but also plant Cruise at the forefront of the next big thing: AI-based companies.
Taking machine learning to a new level
General Motors bought Cruise back in 2016 for around $1 billion, and through subsequent investment rounds, it’s grown to a nearly $30 billion valuation. The company’s goals are spectacularly ambitious, with CEO Dan Ammann effectively calling for the end of personal-car ownership and spurring Cruise to go after a multi-trillion-dollar future global ride-hailing opportunity.
In order to get there, Cruise needs game-changing hardware and software – a quest overseen by Kyle Vogt, its cofounder and chief technology officer – and high-profile partners, including ones it already has like GM and Honda. But Cruise also needs artificial intelligence and machine learning at a level that, frankly, nobody has seen before.
As powerful as 21st-century AI sounds, Mehanna said it’s only recently that its full capabilities have been unleashed. Advancements in robotics and machine learning have made that possible.
“I always had a fascination with AI,” Mehanna, whose career path to Cruise included stints at Facebook and Google, told Insider in an interview. But where are all the robots we might have expected to see by now?
Mehanna said the kind of AI we see in demonstrations – dancing humanoids robots on YouTube, for example – doesn’t scale.
“They’re scripted to handle a certain number of use cases,” he said.
Enter machine learning, which he said has the critical power to generalize.
This is, to put it mildly, huge. At Cruise, Mehnna’s team is tackling a whole new way of undertaking computer science, led by those autonomous EVs cruising through San Francisco.
If it all comes together and Cruise is able to successfully commercialize its service, then Mehanna said that the company could notch an unprecedented achievement: becoming what he termed the first “AI-native company.”
Dreaming of robots that can do much, much more
“It’s a new concept, and we’re inventing it,” he said. The analogy that leaped to mind for him was being able to handle HTML coding for the internet of the late 1990s.
“If you knew HTML, you were a rocket scientist,” he said. The skillset led to internet-native companies such as Google. That history is now staged to repeat with Cruise.
“In five to 10 years, AI natives will be the status quo,” he said.
The endgame of this process should be what he called a “general-purpose robot,” able to learn as humans now learn. It could drive a car, fly a plane, or attend to more mundane tasks.
“My dream,” he said, “is to get my laundry folded by a robot.”
Talking to Mehanna, one gets that sense that we’re just at the beginning of something radical in changing how the world operates. Cruise has already made huge leaps in teaching a car to drive itself, once the stuff of science-fiction movies. But for Mehanna, those apparent leaps are but small steps toward robotic applications and machine learning remaking numerous aspects of everyday life – aspects that we take for granted or have long assumed would always have to involve natural, rather than artificial intelligence.
In the short term, however, he’s simply contemplating machine learning as a prerequisite to Cruise accomplishing what it set out to do five years ago.
“At Cruise, you can’t have a company without AI,” he said.
Florida and cruise companies could be locked in a battle over vaccine requirements as the state puts a ban on vaccine passports while cruise lines continue to mandate the jabs for passengers and crew.
On April 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning vaccine passports and local businesses from requiring this proof of vaccination. This ban applies to cruise lines as well, DeSantis’ press secretary Cody McCloud told Insider in an email.
“The Governor’s Executive Order provides that businesses in Florida are prohibited from requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business,” McCloud told Insider in an email. “Therefore, the Executive Order prohibits cruise lines from requiring vaccine passports for their Florida operations.”
However, major cruise lines – with the exception of those with a sweeping vaccine mandate – have withheld announcing a vaccine policy for future sailing series departing from US ports. So far, all of Royal Caribbean’s cruises operating under a vaccine order will be sailing out of international ports located in countries like Israel, Bermuda, and Cyprus.
This includes Jim Walker – an attorney based in South Florida with a specialization in maritime law – who told the Sun Sentinel that DeSantis may not have the jurisdiction needed to either prohibit cruise lines from enforcing a vaccine mandate or bring cruises back.
Regardless, it could be a while before we see any stand-off between the state and cruise lines interested in sailing out of Florida with a vaccine requirement.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to give cruise lines the green light to resume sailing and has shied away from enforcing an industry-wide vaccine mandate. As a result, no major cruise lines will be sailing from US ports in the near future, even if the ship is traveling with a vaccine mandate.
Cruising could be a “lower risk” travel option compared to other alternatives, such as overseas vacations, Scott Gottlieb, the former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on April 9.
Many major cruise lines have created robust health and safety protocols to make the return of sailing safer amid COVID-19. This includes Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Group, which partnered to establish the Healthy Sail Panel. The panel suggests ways for the industry to move ahead safely amid virus concerns and is currently being co-chaired by Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member.
“As you start to implement all these public health recommendations that we’ve outlined, you start to create an environment that can be quite safe,” Gottlieb told CNBC. “You can create a protective bubble around the [cruise] experience.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, virus outbreaks aboard cruise ships around the world left thousands of cruisers stranded or infected. Shortly after, the CDC put a no-sail order in place, which was later replaced by its recently updated conditional sailing order.
Ships from both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International sailed to the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent to help evacuate people from the volcano’s imminent eruption named La Soufrière.
The Caribbean island went into red alert on Thursday, with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves ordering an evacuation of all northern districts of the island, which has a population of approximately 100,000.
The northern areas are home to around 16,000 people. All have been ordered to leave immediately as they were in the direct path of lava flow and literal fire from the volcano.
However, commercial cruise ships came to the rescue. Carnival Cruise Line sent two ships – Carnival Legend and Carnival Paradise – to the island on Friday. Royal Caribbean International also sent two ships – Serenade of the Seas and Celebrity Reflection. They arrived on Friday evening, with a third expected to arrive in the coming days.
Each ship is expected to take on board up to 1500 people. They will be transported to neighboring islands who have agreed to house them, according to Travel Weekly.
On Thursday, as reported by the Saint Vincent online newspaper News 784, Geologist Richard Robertson said that La Soufrière could erupt at any given time in a matter of days or even hours as the volcano has been increasingly active since November.
Monitoring stations also reported long earthquakes, which suggested that magma was attempting to reach the surface, meaning the volcano was ready to transition to an explosive stage.
On Friday, Saint Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) tweeted that the volcano had indeed “moved into an explosive stage” and erupted.
Having fast and reliable Wi-Fi has become a necessity during the COVID-19 remote work period. To meet this essential function, the cruise line’s “connectivity partner” SES will be launching a new satellite constellation later this year. As a result, when cruising returns, Princess will be able to offer “land-like” internet on all of its ships, turning a boat into an “office at sea,” according to a press release.
This strong Wi-Fi connection will be accessible throughout the ships, which means guests won’t have to stay in their staterooms just to get speedy internet for work or school.
“I challenge you to tell me of another venue anywhere that has this kind of ironclad health and safety protocols in place,” Frank Del Rio, Norwegian Cruise Line parent CEO, told CNBC’s Jim Cramer on “Mad Money” on Monday. “Cruise ships will de facto become the safest place on earth.”
On April 6, Norwegian announced it would halt sailings on eight ships – the Norwegian Breakaway, Dawn, Escape, Getaway, Sky, Spirit, Star, and Sun – through August 31. Sailings on the Norwegian Epic and Pearl were also put on hold through September 1 and November 7, respectively.
However, sailings aboard the Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Jade, and Norwegian Gem are set to resume in July as fully vaccinated cruises in Europe and the Caribbean.
The cruise line had also paused all sailings through November 1 that were set to be longer than seven days going to and from US ports, and any trips sailing to and from Japan through June 25, according to the November notice.
“We continue to prepare our ships for our return to service and we are eager to see our guests back on board to create summertime memories,” Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises’ president, said in a statement.
However, on March 9, the cruise line again updated its suspensions list with different timelines for different cruises. For example, cruises from Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, and Rome have been halted through the end of June, while European cruises originally set to sail to and from Southhampton, England have been paused through September 25. You can view the updated sailing timelines on Princess Cruises’ website.
“We are sorry to disappoint our guests, as we can see from our booking activity that there is clearly a pent-up demand for cruising on Carnival,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said in a statement on the news release.
According to a press release posted on December 9, 2020, Carnival has set up dry docks for the Carnival Magic, Carnival Paradise, and Carnival Valor, therefore halting any of the ships’ embarkments through September 24, May 31, and September 11, respectively. However, on January 25, Carnival announced its plans to suspend these three ships even further until November.
The January 25 release also included announcements related to several other ships and trips. One notable sailing freeze in the update includes trips out of San Diego. Seasonal service trips and planned sailings through April 2023 out of San Diego have now been suspended, and seven of these sailings to Hawaii have been moved to Long Beach, California instead.
On April 6, Carnival halted all sailings from US ports through June 30. Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said in a press release that the cruise line may instead decide to resume sailing from ports outside of the US, a workaround other cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have decided to employ as well.
“We are asking that the cruise industry be treated on par with the approach being taken with other travel and tourism sectors, as well as US society at large,” Duffy said in the press release.
Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises line also halted any trips originally planned through April 30, according to an update on January 12. Several other Celebrity Cruises sailings were paused even further through October.
Less than a month later on March 9, Celebrity announced it would push this pause back through May.
Now, Royal Caribbean sailings will be put on hold through May 31, excluding its Quantum of the Seas and Odyssey of the Seas ships.
Quantum of the Seas’ Alaska trips from April 5 to October 14 have instead been put on hold “in order to allow additional time for our preparation,” the cruise line announced. Meanwhile, Odyssey of the Seas’ Rome sailings from May 9 to October 28 have also been suspended. The new ship will instead set sail from Israel from June to October for Israeli residents only.
Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas sailings in China beginning the end of April through May are also exempt from this pause.
Celebrity and Silversea’s cruises have also been suspended through May 31, while Azamara’s has been pushed back through June 30.
Disney Cruises halted all trips through February 28, according to a travel updated posted on December 11, 2020. Cruises longer than seven nights have been suspended even further. One month later on January 12, Disney Cruises extended its no-sail date through March.
On January 27, Disney Cruises pushed this sailing freeze timeline through April, and then again through May in a February 24 announcement. All Disney Magic sailings in Europe through August 10 were then also canceled due to the “likelihood of international borders remaining closed for an extended period of time.”
On April 6, this timeline was set even further back with the suspension of Disney Dream, Fantasy, and Wonder sailings – all originally set to depart from the US – through June. The original Disney Magic cruises were also halted through September 18. The ship will instead sail as “staycation” cruises for UK residents this summer.
Like other cruise lines, Disney is “evaluating various options” for its Disney Wonder Alaska cruises with dockings in Canada.
MSC released a list of cancellation dates per cruise ship, and the sail dates vary from the end of January to November. Trips on the MSC Armonia, for example, have been canceled through May 28, while the MSC Preziosa won’t be seeing any passengers until after May 31.
Ships like the MSC Fantasia won’t hit the seas until June 5.
P&O previously announced it halted all trips through April. Now, trips on P&O’s Arcadia, Aurora, Azura, and Ventura ships have been paused through August, while its Britannia and Iona ship sailings have been put on hold through September.
On March 22, Costa Cruises announced it would delay the return of its cruises until May due to coronavirus-related restrictions in certain European countries.
“Such measures do not allow the company to offer the best cruise vacations to its guests, especially for what concerns the experience ashore,” the cruise line noted in a press release.
Costa – a Carnival-owned brand that specializes in cruising around Europe – had previous planned to restart on March 27. As of April 6, the Costa Deliziosa, Firenze, Magica and Pacifica will all resume sailing either May 28 or 29.
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“If we start to see vaccines become more widely available, and if the vaccines are being administered in a far more efficient manner than they have been, I think it would be reasonable for the cruise lines to say a vaccine is required,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider in an interview.
However, vaccine rollout and accessibility has been a notorious struggle around the world. As a result, Harteveldt notes that it may be “counterproductive” for major cruise lines like Carnival and Norwegian to require its guests to receive the vaccine if sailings actually resume in the next few months instead of later in the year, say July.
But over the last month, cruise lines have become increasingly vocal about the vaccine. While some companies – such as Carnival and its Holland America line – are “reviewing” the different vaccines, several others have already announced vaccination protocols for guests and crew members.
These are all the cruise lines with vaccine-related mandates so far:
On January 21, United Kingdom-based Saga Cruises announced that it would require all of its passengers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 two weeks before a trip. Saga primarily caters to passengers over 50-years-old.
Royal Caribbean expects to require its crew members to receive the vaccine before sailings return, a spokesperson told Insider.
“Royal Caribbean’s decision to come to Israel is a significant expression of confidence in our policy,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the press release announcing the cruise. “Just as we made Israel the world champion in vaccines, we will make it the world champion in economics and tourism in the post-coronavirus era.”
On March 19, Royal Caribbean announced a similar series of seven-night sailings from July to August aboard its Adventure of the Seas ship. These summertime cruises will bring guests from Nassau, Bahamas to islands like the Grand Bahama, Cozumel, Mexico, and Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay.
Like the Israel-based Odyssey of the Seas sailings, every adult passenger interested in this upcoming Adventure of the Seas collection will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Guests under 18-years-old will instead have to test negative for the virus.
“The vaccines are clearly a game-changer for all of us, and with the number of vaccinations and their impact growing rapidly, we believe starting with cruises for vaccinated adult guests and crew is the right choice,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said in a press release. “As we move forward, we expect this requirement and other measures will inevitably evolve over time.”
On March 23, Royal Caribbean announced another set of seven-night summer cruises, this time from Bermuda aboard the Vision of the Seas ship. Like its previous announcements, these new cruises – which will sail from June 26 through August – will require crew members and adult guests to be vaccinated against COVID-19 “at this time.” Passengers under 18 years old will instead have to test negative for the virus.
Guests aboard this recently announced “fully vaccinated” summer cruise will get a full day at Perfect Day at CocoCay and an overnight stay in Bermuda.
One day later, the mega cruise line announced another set of fully vaccinated seven-night cruises, this time from Limassol, Cyprus. These cruises, which will sail from July 10 through October, will bring guests around Cyprus and Greece, including tourist hotspots like Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini. The same crew, adults, and guests under 18 years old health protocols from the prior two Royal Caribbean announcements apply to this sailing as well.
On February 18, Crystal Cruises said it would require guests to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before a cruise. The cruise line is also requiring a negative coronavirus test result from travelers and crew members, among other health protocols.
“We know that peace of mind is the greatest luxury, and the vaccine requirement is simply the best way to ensure the safest possible Crystal Experience for all on board,” Jack Anderson, the cruise line’s interim president and CEO, said in a press release.
Hornblower Group’s “overnight” cruise lines
Hornblower Group’s American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines have both announced requirements for guests and crew members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for sailings starting July 1.
According to John Waggoner, CEO and founder of American Queen Steamboat Company, requiring the vaccine will ensure the “safest cruising experience possible.” However, the cruise lines is are still looking to resume sailing in April, prior to this vaccination deadline.
Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Norwegian Cruise Line and its Regent Seven Seas Cruises have announced COVID-19 vaccine requirements for crew members prior to boarding. However, the cruise lines are still “exploring all options” in regards to vaccination requirements for its guests, according to the cruise lines’ statements sent to Insider.
Richard Branson’s adults-only cruise line, Virgin Voyages, has announced it will be making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for both guests and crew in order to “provide the safest travel experience,” Tom McAlpin, Virgin Voyages’ CEO, said in an email statement sent to Insider.
“The is a step towards the safe return to sailing and is the right decision for Virgin Voyages,” McAlpin said in the statement. “We’re really encouraged by the latest rollout plans in the May time frame from the new administration, and we know the future is about vaccinations. Our business makes us uniquely set up to do this with testing and vaccine travel requirements.”
The decision to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for guests was based on the “advanced progress of the UK vaccination program and strong expressed preference on the part of our guests,” P&O said in a press release.
On March 19, Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises announced seven-night Caribbean sailings departing from June 5 to August aboard the Celebrity Millennium ship.
Like its parent company’s sailings, all crew members and adult guests interested in Celebrity’s summer Caribbean cruises will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. People under 18 years old will instead have to receive a negative PCR test result within 72 hours of the trip.
On March 30, US-based Windstar Cruises announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for its guests and crew.
Guests interested in sailing with the small cruise line – which oversees six ships – must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before sailing. Proof of the vaccination and a negative COVID-19 PCR test will then have to be presented in order to board the ship.
“The vaccines are clearly a game-changer for all of us, and with the number of vaccinations and their impact growing rapidly, we believe starting with cruises for vaccinated adult guests and crew is the right choice,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said in the press release announcing the new sailings. “As we move forward, we expect this requirement and other measures will inevitably evolve over time.”
Shortly after the cruising giant announced these new “fully vaccinated” sailings on Facebook, the comment section was set alight. While some Facebook commenters praised the vaccine mandate, others voiced their concerns and announced a personal boycott of the cruise line.
“I’ll spend my vacation time and money elsewhere,” Facebook user Crysti Horne said in a comment.
Other Facebook users like Jenny Mayer have called the vaccine mandate discriminatory.
A day after Royal Caribbean’s comment section spiraled into a vaccine debate, Simone Gold – a doctor, vocal COVID-19 vaccine critic, and attendee of the January Capitol insurrection – announced she would be boycotting Royal Caribbean as well.
The post has since been retweeted over 2,400 times and liked by over 8,500 Twitter users, and echoes the anti-vaccination sentiment other people on the social media site have been feeling relative to major cruise lines.
Jennifer Lindquist, a former Royal Caribbean customer, doesn’t agree with any vaccine, face masks, and social distancing mandates, and told Insider “social distancing ruins the entire cruise experience,” in an interview over Facebook messenger.
“We will not be getting the vaccine anytime soon, if ever,” she said. “I do not agree with a company making it mandatory for their employees to be vaccinated with an experimental vaccine.”
However, many of these Facebook comments and tweets have seemingly been based on a glaring mistake: Royal Caribbean never implemented a company-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all of its future guests.
“The misconception is that all of the cruises will be vaccinated, and that decision has not been made yet,” a Royal Caribbean spokesperson told Insider in an interview. “If you look at the countries that are doing fully vaccinated cruises, it’s mandatory by the government. We want to set sail, and that’s part of the deal to cruise again.”
Royal Caribbean currently has several health protocols in place ahead of its major return to sailing. These include social distancing, mask-wearing, and robust testing and quarantining guidelines for crew members.
But in regards to vaccines, Royal Caribbean – including its Celebrity Cruises brand – has only announced five “fully vaccinated” summer cruises so far. While crew members are required to be vaccinated before sailings return, the cruise giant has not implemented a sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all its future guests.
“We’re following the science and medical advice, and we want to do what’s best for our passengers and crew and obviously the communities that we visit as well,” the Royal Caribbean spokesperson said.
Vaccinated against COVID-19 and craving a warm summer escape aboard a cruise ship? Royal Caribbean’s newly announced seven-night Mediterranean cruises may be a good fit for you. From July 10 through October, the cruise line’s 13-deck Jewel of the Seas ship will bring guests from Limassol, Cyprus to different destinations around Cyprus and Greece, including Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini.
This will be Royal Caribbean’s first time sailing from Cyprus.
“We are delighted that Royal Caribbean will call Limassol its home port for the first time ever,” Savvas Perdios, Cyprus’ deputy minister of tourism, said in a press release. “This has been an ambition of ours for many years, and we are thrilled that, finally, this dream has come to fruition.”
These new Mediterranean sailings will cruise with a vaccine mandate. This means all crew members and adult guests aboard the ship will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, while passengers under 18-years-old will instead have to test negative for the virus. However, Royal Caribbean notes that these protocols may change “as they are evaluated on an ongoing basis.”
“The vaccines are clearly a game-changer for all of us, and with the number of vaccinations and their impact growing rapidly, we believe starting with cruises for vaccinated adult guests and crew is the right choice,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said in a March 19 press release. “As we move forward, we expect this requirement and other measures will inevitably evolve over time.”