GM, Lyft developing self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. are developing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs for Lyft users that the companies plan to launch “sooner than later” on public roadways.

Within a couple of years, it is expected that ride-hailing customers will be part of a test in California in which self-driving Bolts – with a Lyft driver at the wheel, at least at first – will pick up passengers.

GM, through its pending acquisition of Cruise Automation, will inherit the software company’s license to test autonomous vehicles in the Golden State, according to a source familiar with the plans.

Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft director of product, said details of the program with GM are still being discussed. “We’re still working on the technology, but I think we’re in a position where we basically have a plan as to how we want to roll this out,” he said during an interview Thursday in Detroit, ahead of an appearance as part of Techweek Detroit. “We’re trying to measure this in months, not years.”

Matthiesen said the first phase of testing the vehicles on public roadways would likely involve a handful of cars with “safety drivers” whom are in the driver seat of the autonomous cars in case something unexpected occurs.

Plans for an autonomous fleet were originally announced when GM acquired announced it was investing $500 million in Lyft in January, but no timetable was given.

Matthiesen declined to offer a timeframe of when the companies want to deploy the vehicles on U.S. roadways, citing appropriate city polices and legislation must be approved prior to any testing occurring in select cities.

A prototype version of the app using an autonomous Bolt would allow Lyft users to opt in or out of the autonomous program when hailing a Lyft vehicle. Matthiesen said the company is continuing to work on how the vehicle communicates with the occupants to ensure everyone is in the vehicle, it’s the right vehicle and the destination is correct.

“These are things that we’re going to have to think about in terms of solving that aren’t going to be solved by just an app,” he said. “And that’s where the partnership with GM, as we go through this, it’s not just about the user experiences on the app, but in the car as well.”

Lyft, Matthiesen said, is working on its network and how to integrate the fleet so it’s “familiar” to its users, while GM is focusing on the vehicles and autonomous technologies.

“Without some partner, we really wouldn’t be focusing on this right now,” he said. “I really like the GM partnership because what they focus on and what we focus are completely two different aspects of yet two pieces of the much larger problem.”

Plans for the autonomous Bolt fleet were originally reported Thursday by The Wall Street Journal. They come two months after GM announced plans to acquire San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., reportedly for more than $1 billion.

GM on Thursday declined to comment on specifics of its evolving Lyft partnership.

“GM continues to make progress on our previously announced plans related to an integrated on-demand autonomous network with Lyft,” GM spokesman Kevin Kelly said in an emailed statement. “Similarly, we have said the Chevrolet Bolt EV is the ideal platform for ride-sharing solutions. We believe electrification blends perfectly with autonomy when it comes to technology integration.”

GM’s Mike Ableson, vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, told Congress in March that the automaker sees the “next logical step toward public availability of high-level automated vehicles will be controlled ride-sharing projects, such as what we are planning with Lyft.” He also said that the company planned to introduce autonomous technology with drivers within “the next couple of years.”

GM executives, including CEO Mary Barra, have said the Bolt — due out late this year — was designed with car-sharing and ride-hailing services in mind.

As part of GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft, GM President Dan Ammann gets a seat on the Lyft board. The companies are launching a short-term rental program for Lyft drivers in Chicago; the service is expected to launch in other cities later this year.

GM later this year also plans to test a fleet of autonomous 2017 Chevrolet Volts plug-in hybrids at its GM Warren Tech Center campus. 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.

Lyft is the second-largest ride-hailing service in the U.S. after Uber Technologies Inc. Both are viewed as automotive industry disruptors. Many believe the so-called “traditional automakers” need to work with and be more like Lyft and Uber in order to reshape the automotive industry.

Ford Motor Co. earlier Thursday announced it is investing $182.2 million in Palo Alto-based software company Pivotal to develop quicker updates for cloud-based software like the recently created FordPass customer experience app and Dearborn shuttle service. In addition to the investment, Ford’s Chief Information Officer Marcy Klevorn will join Pivotal’s board of directors.

“The reason for doing this is very strategic,” Ford President and CEO Mark Fields told The Detroit News. “The ability to develop software and the capabilities necessary to do that is going to be very important as we deliver these products and services going forward.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Google’s self-driving car project said they plan to integrate the tech giant’s self-driving technology into a test fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans starting later this year.

The non-exclusive partnership marks the first time Google has worked directly with an automaker to integrate its self-driving system — including its sensors and software — into a passenger vehicle.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer said after the Google-Fiat Chrysler announcement that he expected more partnerships between the Motor City and Silicon Valley were on the horizon.

“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” he said in an email. “It may or may not lead to a long-term collaboration with FCA, but I would expect to see other tech companies, including Apple and Uber, form similar limited partnerships with established automakers as they get closer to launching self-driving cars.”

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