General Motors plans to mass-produce self-driving cars that lack traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019, the company announced today. Its a bold declaration for the future of driving from one of the country’s Big Three automakers, and one that is sure to shake things up for the industry as the annual Detroit Auto Show kicks off next week.
The car will be the fourth generation of its driverless, all-electric Chevy Bolts, which are currently being tested on public roads in San Francisco and Phoenix. And when they roll off the assembly line of GM’s manufacturing plant in Orion, Michigan, they’ll be deployed as ride-hailing vehicles in a number of cities.
“It’s a pretty exciting moment in the history of the path to wide scale [autonomous vehicle] deployment and having the first production car with no driver controls,” GM President Dan Ammann told The Verge. “And it’s an interesting thing to share with everybody.”
The announcement coincides with the tail end of CES, where a number of big companies announced their own plans to deploy autonomous vehicles, and right before the Detroit Auto Show, where the industry will have on display all the trucks and SUVs that make its profits.
By committing to rolling out fully driverless cars in a shortened timeframe, GM is seeking to outmaneuver rivals both old and new in the increasingly hyper competitive race to build and deploy robot cars. Ford has said it will build a steering-wheel-and-pedal-less autonomous car by 2021, while Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, is preparing to launch its first commercial ride-hailing service in Phoenix featuring fully driverless minivans (though still with traditional controls).
Unlike those other companies, GM provided a sneak peek at how its new, futuristic cars will look on the inside. In some ways, its the vehicular version of a Rorsharch inkblot test. The bilateral symmetry of the interior looks both unnerving and yet completely normal at the same time. Instead of a steering wheel, in its place is blank real estate. Under the dash, more empty space. It’s kind of eerie, as you can see in this a video.
The automaker submitted a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for permission to deploy a car that doesn’t comply with all federal safety standards. Ammann said the company wasn’t seeking an exemption from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards — something the government caps at 2,500 — just a new way around a few of the requirements.
GM is proposing to “meet that standard in a different kind of way,” Ammann said. “A car without a steering wheel can’t have a steering wheel airbag,” he said. “What we can do is put the equivalent of the passenger side airbag on that side as well. So its to meet the standards but meet them in a way that’s different than what’s exactly prescribed, and that’s what the petition seeks to get approval for.”
(Of course, the issue of exemptions from federal safety standards may become moot if Congress passes a bill to lift the cap from 2,500 to 100,000. But as of now, the legislation is stalled.)
GM made this announcement to herald the release of its first 33-page safety report to the US Department of Transportation. The feds suggested in 2016, and again last year, that tech companies and automakers working on self-driving cars voluntarily submit a safety checklist to the government in order to help keep tabs on this fast moving technology. GM is only the second company working on autonomous vehicles to have submitted its report, Waymo being the first.
GM breaks its safety assessment into 12 sections: safety system; operational design domain; object and event detection and response; fallback (minimal risk condition); validation methods; human machine interface; vehicle cybersecurity; crash worthiness; post-crash behavior; data recording; consumer education and training; and federal, state, and local laws. It’s a detailed, sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating look at how GM designs and programs its cars to handle all the mundane and insane things that happen on US roads.
There are some standout elements in the announcement, such as GM’s argument as to why its testing in San Francisco is exponentially more important than its suburban testing. (Emphasis ours.)
While we also test vehicles in Phoenix, our San Francisco vehicles predict an average of 32 times as many possible interactions as those in Phoenix. Thus, San Francisco challenges our self-driving system more because, as the number of objects increase, there are exponentially more possible interactions with objects that the self- driving system must consider.
For example, GM’s self-driving Chevy Bolts encounter 270 emergency vehicles for every 1,000 miles driven in San Francisco, compared to just six in Phoenix.
The safety report excludes certain information, like the the number of times that human safety drivers were forced to take control of their driverless vehicles, or the number of accidents in which GM’s cars were involved. (Cruise Automation, GM’s self-driving unit, told California regulators that its cars were in six crashes in September 2017 alone. Under state law, companies with a license to test autonomous vehicles are required to disclose all accidents, even when they are not at fault.)
Speaking of accidents, GM has not one, but two data recorders in each of its autonomous vehicles to store and protect information in the event of a crash. The collected data includes information from the car’s sensors, vehicle actions, and any malfunctions that occur. Like a black box recorder on an airplane, the data logging machine is designed to withstand catastrophic accidents.
The report and the announcement about GM’s first fully driverless vehicle is sure to impress investors, which have been bullish on the company thanks to its unique ability to scale its product. The automaker has been on a buying spree, acquiring both Cruise and LIDAR startup Strobe to help it become a “full-stack” autonomous car company. It also plans to roll out at least 20 new electric cars by 2023, a goal that puts it in a position to bring battery-powered driving to the mainstream.
Ammann says its what gives GM a leg up over its rivals. “We believe this technology will change the world,” he said. “And we’re doing everything we can to get it out there at scale as fast as we can.”