GM to produce, test self-driving Chevy Bolts in Mich.

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. plans to immediately begin testing self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs on public roads in Michigan and will build the next-generation autonomous Bolt EV at its Orion Assembly Plant.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra announces that GM will immediately begin testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in Michigan.

Chairman and CEO Mary Barra made the announcement during a rare news conference Thursday afternoon at the automaker’s Renaissance Center headquarters in Detroit, calling the state one of the “primary areas” for the automaker to test autonomous vehicles. She said GM will be first high-volume automaker to produce a fully autonomous prototype in an assembly plant.

GM has been testing a fleet of more than 40 autonomous Bolt EVs in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona. Barra said GM already has been testing autonomous Bolt EVs at its Warren Tech Center campus.

“We will now expand AV (autonomous vehicle) activities on public roads on the outskirts of our Warren campus,” she said. “And within the next several months, we will expand testing to Metro Detroit.”

The first autonomous Bolt EVs to be tested on Michigan streets will have safety engineers behind the steering wheel who are ready to take over in emergencies. The Bolts will be easily identifiable: The cars are painted white — at least the initial ones are — and they wear manufacturers license plates and roof racks bristling with LIDAR and cameras.

And the engineers have given names to their cars, which are spelled out on the hoods and rear bumpers: A car on display Thursday was called “Markhor,” a species of wild Himalayan goat. Others are named after different animal species.

Michigan will serve as the base for GM’s cold weather and winter driving condition testing for autonomous vehicles, Barra said. “We’re ensuring our AVs can operate safely across a whole range of road, weather and climate conditions,” she said.

Ford Motor Co. announced earlier this year it wants to have a fully driverless car without steering wheel or pedals on the road by 2021. It has been testing self-driving Fusion hybrids on Michigan roads since July 2015, with safety drivers, and has tested in the winter at MCity in Ann Arbor.

GM’s autonomous vehicle engineering team is based in Michigan. It acquired Cruise Automation, a San Francisco autonomous vehicle software startup, earlier this year. The teams have been working together to quicken GM’s eventual deployment of self-driving cars.

Barra would not say when that will happen.

“We’re not putting a date on it,” she said. “I think you see by our announcement today we are working extremely aggressive. We’re being gated by safety. We want to make sure we have safe and reliable autonomous vehicles on the road.”

LIDAR, cameras, sensors and other hardware help guide the autonomous Bolts.

Barra said the automaker will produce autonomous test vehicles at its Orion assembly plant beginning in early 2017.

GM would not say how many autonomous vehicles it plans to test on Michigan roads, nor how many vehicles it will build at Orion.

Pam Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer of global electric and autonomous vehicles, said bodies for the autonomous Bolt EV are already in the Orion Assembly plant. The Orion plant manufactures the Bolt EV, a pure electric vehicle with 238 miles of range, and the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic.

“The challenge is for consumers to believe one of the world’s largest manufacturers can design and innovate such technology. Hopefully, being early on road testing will convey that yes, they can and are innovating.”

Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of autonomous vehicle laws that allow automakers to provide on-demand autonomous ride-sharing services, to operate an autonomous car without a driver behind the wheel, and eventually to sell self-driving cars to consumers. Proponents, including GM, say the law puts Michigan in the driver’s seat for self-driving autonomous technology, testing and deployment.

GM is working with Lyft Inc. to develop a fleet of self-driving Bolts that would be used for ride-sharing. GM is expected to begin testing those within a few years.

Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous technology and vehicle execution, on Thursday said GM is “still on that path,” but he declined to say when those vehicles would be ready to deploy for ride-sharing.

Barra also said GM plans to have its Super Cruise technology — a semi-autonomous system that will allow a driver to take their hands off the wheel and foot off the pedals while highway driving — on the road next year. It will be available first on the Cadillac CT6.

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Staff writer Michael Wayland contributed.