GM to test fleet of self-driving Chevy Volts

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Milford Township — General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said the company plans to be a “disruptor” in the changing auto industry, as it announced what’s believed to be an industry-first fleet of self-driving cars, as well as two U.S. car-sharing programs.

A fleet of autonomous 2017 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids will be made available for employees at its Warren Tech Center. Beginning late next year, they’ll be able to hop into one of the Volts and be shuttled around the campus.

Barra says the company wants to redefine the future of personal mobility, and doing so will transform the company.

“It really demonstrates a different mindset than what you might expect from the auto industry, really a Silicon Valley mindset,” she told investors and analysts Thursday at GM’s Global Business Conference. “We’re going to step things up. We’re going to experiment, we’re going to get customer input, we’re going to do it in a cost-effective way. If it works, we’re going to scale it.”

The automaker plans to use the test fleet of Volts to more quickly develop autonomous vehicles as it moves testing from professional drivers and test tracks into more real-world scenarios.

The move shows the carmaker is moving swiftly to compete with innovators such as Google Inc., which says it has logged more than 1.2 million miles of autonomous vehicle testing. Apple Inc. and Uber also reportedly are developing self-driving cars.

The Volts will interact in the real world with pedestrians, traffic and stop signs. Speeds will be limited to about 25 mph on the campus.

The test fleet will drive and park itself so a passenger could sit back and let the car find its way. But it will be equipped to allow a driver to take over at any time, GM spokesman Dan Flores said.

GM has not announced how many Volts will be in the fleet — or if all employees or just a pilot group will be able to use the cars. “We’re still in the process of working out all the details of the autonomous Volt fleet,” Flores said. “However, we’re not talking hundreds of vehicles here.”

The aim is to quicken deployment of autonomous vehicles, executives said.

“It is a tremendous opportunity for us to accelerate everything around autonomous and safety, and to do it very, very quickly,” said Mark Reuss, head of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.

Employees will be able to use the Volts to travel within the tech center campus, reserving them with a car-sharing app. Inside the Volt, they’ll be able to select a predetermined destination on the center stack.

Strategic partnerships will help launch the vehicles more quickly; the carmaker is in discussions with some potential partners, Reuss said. He said GM has “heightened” its partnership with Mobileye, which develops vision-based systems that help avoid collisions.

“We will be ready when the market demand calls for autonomous vehicles,” he said.

Just how soon that will come is questioned by industry experts, due to regulations, cost, insurance liability and other concerns. Some analysts expect to see fully autonomous cars by 2020; others say it will take at least 10 years.

Some of the advanced technology used for a fully autonomous car will be available in the near future. The carmaker confirmed its Super Cruise advanced driver-assist technology will be available on the 2017 Cadillac CT6. The technology will allow a driver to take hands off the steering wheel and foot off the pedals while driving on a highway.

Self-driving cars are seen in the long run as potentially disruptive to auto industry sales.

Barclays Capital Inc. analyst Brian A. Johnson, believes fully autonomous vehicles could cut vehicle ownership in half in the next quarter-century. That in turn could cut auto demand by 40 percent. Shared autonomous cars could displace nine regular cars, Johnson said in a note to investors earlier this year. He predicts that carmakers such as GM may have to slash production and get smaller.

As part of the changing transportation landscape, GM is exploring new modes of ownership. It has launched a car-sharing program in New York City; another citywide car-sharing program is coming to another U.S. city early next year, said Mike Ableson, vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning. GM did not identify the other city.

GM’s Let’s Drive NYC car-sharing program is available to residents of a 479-unit luxury apartment building; they receive three hours of vehicle use per month as part of their apartment rent. After that, they can rent for less than $10 an hour up to $75 a day. The fleet includes Chevrolet Trax and Equinox vehicles.

Earlier this year its Opel brand launched CarUnity, a free car-sharing smartphone app in Germany.

Car-sharing generally allows consumers to rent a car for a short period of time, perhaps just a half-hour. Ride-sharing matches people to available carpools or an Uber-like service that provides on-demand rides.

Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other automakers are exploring ride-sharing efforts. The forecaster Frost & Sullivan predicts car-sharing globally will grow to 17 million customers in 2020 from 5.4 million last year.

Barra said GM wants to learn from its car-sharing programs what customer preferences are, how using the services may change driving behavior and what technology is most important.

The automaker even said it will launch an eBike concept next year as part of its strategy around alternative transportation.

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