Pending permission from the feds, General Motors Co.’s race to field a self-driving car for the masses next year is poised to pass its Silicon Valley rivals — for now.
The century-old automaker is proving the hallmark that once defined the automotive industry as a dying dinosaur — good old Detroit manufacturing — could be a key to delivering a driverless future.
“There are a number of hurdles to clear before self-driving cars transition from laboratory experiments to real-world functionality,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst with Cox Automotive. “Two of those hurdles, mass production and government regulation, appear to be within General Motors’ grasp. We’ve known for several months GM is ready for volume production.”
In a surprise move, GM said Friday it had filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seeking permission to deploy its self-driving Cruise AV, which will be built on the Chevrolet Bolt EV platform without the Chevy branding. The automaker is asking essentially to re-write language in 16 different requirements that focus on vehicles engineered to be driven by humans.
It would be a drastic change, but it would be in line with GM’s previously self-imposed deadline to launch a driverless ride-hailing fleet in a yet-to-be-named city next year. And it’s likely a move Detroit has to make to stay relevant in a rapidly changing industry.
With autonomous technology becoming ubiquitous and with bragging rights a potential boost in share value, touting achievements in the self-driving space also is becoming a game of one-upsmanship.
“Does it matter who is first?” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for Autotrader. “It’s becoming a silly game of who can one up each other with press releases. But let’s see who can get to market first in some kind of significant way. Personal car ownership is not going away. These will be rolled out in small batches.”
But Detroit is under unique pressure to compete with industry disruptors like Tesla Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo self-driving unit, which said at the end of last year it was ready to yank the drivers from its autonomous Chrysler Pacificas crawling around the greater Phoenix area.
Still, safety advocates are accusing GM and other automakers of rushing to put self-driving cars on the road at the risk of public safety.
“We don’t know anything about how safe these cars are, other than what was published a year ago when they filed disengagement reports in California,” John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, referring to reports that are required to note when a human tester has to take over from an automated driving system. “Everybody is out there with hype saying they are going to get these things out there, but they aren’t clear about what they mean.”
GM reported 284 disengagements to the state of California during 10,015 miles of testing that took place between June 2015 and November 2016, according to documents filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
NHTSA said Friday that safety is the top priority, and the agency will review GM’s petition and give it “careful consideration.”
“Existing motor vehicle standards were designed to apply to vehicles with conventional driver controls like steering wheels and gas and brake pedals,” NHTSA said in a statement. “The petition that was filed says that GM would use automated vehicles with no human drivers and no human driver controls.”
Federal regulators began asking automakers to fill out a voluntary safety assessment to demonstrate their self-driving cars are safe to operate on U.S. roads Thus far, only GM and Waymo have made their safety assessments public. GM published a 33-page safety report on its website that it said “fully addresses all 12 safety elements in NHTSA’s voluntary guidance, Automated Driving Systems 2.0 — A Vision for Safety.”
“Self-driving vehicles require system diversity, robustness and redundancies similar to strategies used for the most advanced fighter planes and deep-space satellites,” the company said. “We focus on the capabilities of each system to give the vehicle’s computers full control of acceleration, braking and steering, and the ability to make the right decisions to drive safely on the road.”
Under legislation approved by the U.S. House and pending in the U.S. Senate, automakers and technology companies would each be allowed to sell thousands of self-driving cars per year.
The House self-driving bill requires automakers to develop cybersecurity plans within 180 days of the measure becoming law. The Senate’s bill gives carmakers 18 months to craft those plans.
GM has already been testing self-driving Bolts on the road for testing in San Francisco. All of the company’s autonomous cars are developed with Cruise Automation, a Silicon Valley start-up the automaker acquired in 2016 to speed up development.