- General Motors on Thursday revealed its fourth-generation self-driving vehicle.
- It has no traditional manual controls.
- The automaker expects to roll it out in 2019.
No driver. No pedals. No steering wheel. Just seats and screens and doors that can close themselves. That's what riders will see when they get into one of General Motors' Cruise self-driving electric vehicles, scheduled to hit the road in 2019.
On Thursday, the automaker also stressed that the fully autonomous vehicle would emphasize safety — and went into great detail on the hows and whys, including redundant systems intended to replace a human driver.
On a conference call with reporters, GM's president, Dan Ammann, said the vehicle was the fourth generation of the vehicle to emerge from the carmaker's Cruise division. GM acquired what was then Cruise Automation, a Silicon Valley startup, in 2016.
"We're super excited to share this point in the journey," Ammann said.
The third generation, based on the Chevy Bolt, was showcased in San Francisco for the media late last year, so GM Cruise has been able to reveal four iterations in 18 months, Ammann said.
Rapid progress toward a car with no controls
That's rapid progress and a testament to a critical early design and engineering decision: to pair Cruise's technology, optimized for complicated urban environments such as San Francisco, with GM's ability to develop and manufacture vehicles at a massive scale.
Asked to rank that process in terms of competitive advantage on a scale of one to 10, Ammann said it was a 12.
Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt, also on the call, added that it's "very binary."
"Either you can do that, or you don't have a business," he said.
GM estimated that it could already roll out its fourth-generation autonomous vehicles in seven US states without creating any legal problems. Federal authorization would have to come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, something Ammann said GM had asked the government to allow. The carmaker has also published an extensive safety report to facilitate the process of getting a Level 5 autonomous vehicle — the highest level — on the road.
The carmaker intends to work with states that may have existing legal restrictions on self-driving vehicles to resolve any potential problems by 2019. GM used the example of a requirement to have a steering-wheel airbag. Because the new vehicle doesn't have a steering wheel, the company wants to be able to use a passenger-side-type airbag to satisfy the rule.
Integrating manufacturing puts safety first
In its safety report, GM returned to the integrated-manufacturing priority that it believes has enabled Cruise to produce its vehicles with safety at the forefront.
"By integrating our self-driving system into the vehicle from the beginning, and through close coordination between the hardware and software teams, we have evaluated potential failure modes for all systems, and addressed them throughout development to ensure a safe and reliable product," the report says.
"This comprehensive, integrated approach to safety, combined with testing in one of the most complex environments in the world, allows us to safely take the next step — elimination of the steering wheel, pedals and other manual controls — from the vehicle."
Vogt, who joined GM when Cruise was bought, thinks this is big deal.
"What's really special about this, when we look back 20 years from now, is that it will be a major milestone — to create production-ready vehicle with no manual controls," he said.
Industry experts seconded that view.
"It's been clear for a while that self-driving vehicles are the future, and GM aims to make that reality an imminent one. If they are granted permission from regulators and they can solve hazardous driving scenarios, the floodgates for advanced autonomous vehicles will open," Kelley Blue Book analysts Akshay Anand said in an email.
"Look out, folks - the revolution may be coming sooner than we thought."
Summoned by smartphones
When in operation, the GM says, the vehicles will travel geo-fenced areas, summoned by smartphones.
"When we deploy our self-driving vehicles, customers will use a mobile app to request a ride, just like they use ride-sharing today," GM said in its safety report. "The only difference is that customers will control the experience — their customized climate control and radio station settings will be sent to the vehicle ahead of when they access their ride."
It may be weird when these vehicles first appear on the street, but over time the company expects people to get used to them. And GM is prepared to build plenty of self-driving cars at its Orion Township plant in Michigan.
"It's the biggest assembly plant in the GM system," Ammann said. "We have fantastic capacity to build the vehicle."
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