GM grows autonomous team, builds test track in Warren

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Warren — General Motors Co. expects to grow its autonomous vehicle development team by hundreds of people at its Warren Tech Center, just as the automaker aims to begin testing a fleet of self-driving cars on the campus later this year.

“We’ve got several hundred people in this space right now ... expanding to several hundred people more (by end of this year into next year),” said Ken Kelzer, vice president of global vehicle components and subsystems and an executive overseeing the $1 billion Warren Tech Center transformation and renovation project.

The carmaker earlier this year created an autonomous and technology vehicle development team and brought together engineers working on autonomous vehicle development. The workforce, from all areas and locations of GM, now are housed in an engineering building at the Tech Center built in 1954; some of the space already has been renovated and other areas will be renovated by the fall.

The site will serve as the hub of autonomous vehicle development, Kelzer said.

The sprawling Tech Center also is the site GM selected to test a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Employees will begin testing the Volts on campus roadways later this year; the company already has tested some self-driving Volts on a new 1/10th-mile autonomous loop test track at the Tech Center, Kelzer said. The track was completed in the fall.

GM announced the self-driving Volt fleet last fall and said employees would be able to reserve a ride in an autonomous Volt through a smartphone app and be shuttled around the campus, while the vehicle handled interactions with pedestrians and traffic.

“The nice thing about the Tech Center is there are a lot of different traffic maneuvers,” said Jon Lauckner, chief technology officer, in an interview last fall. “For example, we have roundabouts where you have to merge on and merge off. It turns out to be a fairly complicated situation. There are definitely medians, left turns across traffic, you know the kinds of things you’re going to find definitely in an urban environment. And the kinds of things that are going to allow us to basically refine and further develop the sensing and processing that we’re going to need to have a fully autonomous vehicle in the future.”

The fleets will help the company better understand on-demand ride-sharing services, as GM, other carmakers and tech companies want to provide transportation as a service. Automakers and tech firms are working to develop autonomous driving technology and vehicles because they see benefits in reducing traffic crashes and deaths from and to provide service to the disabled or elderly.

“We’re going to start with a handful of vehicles for testing and then it’s going to go into dozens as the years go on as we start to develop it,” Kelzer said. “We’ve got to be cognizant of the safety systems out there, too. As the safety systems evolve, so will the fleet evolve.”

The autonomous track at the Tech Center wasn’t part of the master plan for renovating the aging Tech Center. But it came together in just six weeks after Kelzer said he contacted an executive in the company’s global facilities group to carve out some space for engineers to conduct initial self-driving vehicle testing.

“You can’t go from zero autonomous to full autonomous,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out all the safety systems. We want to be safe and secure for not only the people driving the cars, but the people who are on the campus.”

GM’s movement in the autonomous space has been quickening since the fall.

In January, it announced a $500 million investment into ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. and last month it acquired San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, a software company it hopes can help speed development of autonomous vehicle technology. Cruise, which is adding employees in San Francisco, is operating independently within GM’s autonomous vehicle development team. The company also earlier this year also announced Maven, a growing car-sharing service GM launched in Ann Arbor.

GM leaders have said they see the first phase of autonomous vehicles on the road will come in a controlled ride-sharing service in an urban area. The service could include boundaries to operate within a certain city and not to exceed a set speed limit. The carmaker is working with Lyft to develop and test a fleet of on-demand self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs for ride sharing.

“We fully anticipate deploying autonomous vehicles with drivers in some sort of ride-sharing application within the next couple of years,” Mike Ableson, GM’s vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, said last month during Citi’s 2016 Car of the Future Symposium.

GM also is using the Milford Proving Ground and a newer 52-acre, $14 million Active Safety Test Area at the proving ground, to test autonomous vehicles. The carmaker has only tested self-driving cars — a Chevrolet Bolt EV — on public roadways in San Francisco.

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