G.M. Says Its Driverless Car Could Be in Fleets by Next Year

By NEAL E. BOUDETTEJAN. 12, 2018

The advent of self-driving cars, the subject of so much fanfare over the last few years from automakers and technology companies, may be just around the corner — at least according to General Motors.

On Friday, G.M. submitted a petition to the United States Department of Transportation seeking permission to begin operating fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels or pedals — in a commercial ride-hailing service next year.

What’s more, the company said the vehicle, the Cruise AV, could be put into production on a standard assembly line once approval was granted by the federal government and states where the cars would operate.

Self-driving technology “is only going to have a big impact if we can deploy it at large scale,” G.M.’s chief financial officer, Dan Ammann, said in an interview. “We intend to launch a commercial ride-share service at commercial scale in 2019. That will begin in one city and scale up in that city and move to other cities after that.”

The cars would most likely be used initially in a ride service created by G.M., rather than in a service run by an established company like Uber or Lyft, Mr. Ammann said.

If approved, the Cruise AVs would probably appear first in San Francisco or Scottsdale, Ariz., where G.M.’s self-driving subsidiary, Cruise Automation, is conducting tests. In San Francisco, the division has set up a ride-hailing service using about 50 Cruise AVs, although the cars are available only for some of its 250 employees, not public customers.

The Cruise AV is a version of the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt. Mr. Ammann said it was reasonable to assume that mass production of the self-driving model would take place at a factory in Orion Township, Mich., that already makes Cruise AV prototypes and the Bolt, though he said there were no firm plans.

With its announcement, G.M. appears to have a jump in the race to field self-driving cars. Ford Motor is also developing a car with no steering wheel or pedals, but has said it won’t go into mass production until 2021.

The Cruise AV is a four-passenger vehicle with an array of radar, cameras and laser sensors that are clustered on its roof and allow the car to navigate city streets and recognize vehicles, pedestrians, intersections and other obstacles. Since it does not have a steering wheel, it has two passenger seats in front and a center console with a display screen and a few buttons and knobs for audio and climate control.

G.M.’s petition calls for producing up to 2,500 Cruise AVs for use in commercial ride fleets.

“Mass production and government regulation appear to be within General Motors’ grasp,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, an automotive data firm. “If government approval is granted, and G.M. begins providing autonomous taxi service to end users in multiple markets, we’ll officially be living in a world of self-driving cars.”

Approval from the Transportation Department is expected to take several months, and then G.M. would need local clearance before it could provide rides in Cruise AVs to the public. Mr. Ammann said it was not clear how the department’s main auto-safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would evaluate G.M.’s petition, and whether the agency would test the vehicles itself.

The safety agency said Friday that it would give G.M.’s petition “careful consideration.”

Local approval will depend on each state’s regulations, Mr. Ammann said. Michigan, for example, already allows cars with no steering wheels to operate on public roads. Other states would need to decide how to treat driverless cars.

Industry analysts say automakers and technology companies could generate billions of dollars in revenue and profit by selling or leasing self-driving cars to ride services, taxi fleets and delivery companies. Ford said this week that it would work with Domino’s Pizza and a start-up delivery company, Postmates, to use its autonomous prototypes in limited commercial tests this year.

Waymo, the autonomous-vehicle company spun out of Google, is testing its own fully autonomous cars in Arizona and California. Lyft and a technology start-up called Nutonomy recently began testing self-driving cars in Boston. Uber is running a pilot program in Pittsburgh.

Tesla, G.M., Audi and other automakers are also developing driver-assistance systems that take over for drivers in certain conditions, such as cruising along a divided highway. Those technologies, however, require drivers to remain alert and are considered years away from becoming fully autonomous systems.

G.M. is convinced that self-driving cars can play a significant role in reducing deaths and injuries from auto crashes. Traffic accidents kill more than 35,000 people a year, and 95 percent result from driver errors. Ride services with self-driving cars could also make it easier to get around without owning or renting a car — and producing those cars would help G.M. weather a shift away from individual ownership.

“Ultimately we see a very big business opportunity around this,” Mr. Ammann said.

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Hey Skip,  I wonder if the front seats will spin 180 degrees so you can party with the back-seaters and have direct access to the beer cooler?

Do you want the business model?  Or the party model?  The business model lacks the iTunes 24-speaker system and the built-in bar.

Or, how about the vacation model?  Roof top rack for skis or bikes or one of those streamlined roof top cargo carriers.  The camping model could have seats that turn into beds and automatic window privacy shades.  The possibilities are many.  Or you could use it to get from A to B, just like the antiquated cars.  :-)

Going for a "ride" is going to change.  I think we'll accept the driverless cars in droves when we realize how much they'll free us from the task of driving. 

Most drivers take for granted the operation of an automobile.  One of the biggest things in life for young folks is to get under the wheel of their first car and hit the road solo.  I remember my first car and the independence it provided.  I was in control of a machine that could go fast when I wanted, cruise slow to look cool, and a rearview mirror to see where I've been.  My first home didn't provide any of that...

My first time under the "wheel" didn't go as I expected.  Our old farm truck (army tank) was tough, and I took out our mailbox on my first pass.  My cousin, who was a year older than me, was teaching me how to drive and he had a hard time instructing me to turn the wheel only when you want to turn the vehicle.  I got my big chance to show him how much I learned on that first driving lesson when we tried to pull in the driveway.  We didn't make it, the truck went into the ditch and bounced into the yard.  The engine stalled and saved us from hitting the house.  From that day on, daddy took over all driving lessons.  Children will not know the thrill of crashing their car and seeing their life flash before their eyes like we did.  

I think the automobile will become more like commercial airplanes.  Get in, take a seat, buckle up, and read your book, unless you're an old timer and think you can fly the plane.

Brings back memories, Max.  :-)  I imagine quite a few of us dodged death and injury in our early, inexperienced driving days.  I think those are experiences that younger generations can do without.  The stakes are far too high.  Still, I enjoyed your reminiscences.

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