GM builds 130 self-driving Bolts, grows test fleet

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Orion Township — General Motors Co. has built 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs at its Orion Assembly Plant here, test vehicles it plans to deploy in Metro Detroit, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra updates the media on the company's autonomous vehicle development program. She is standing next to a Bolt, with this model being a purpose built autonomous vehicle. Photo taken on Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Mich. (Jose Juarez/Special to Detroit News)

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra made the announcement Tuesday during a media and employee event at the plant. The vehicles are equipped with next-generation technology including lidar, cameras, more than 40 sensors and other hardware. They will join more than 50 already being tested in the three locations, bringing the company’s test fleet to 180.

“Production of these vehicles began in January, making GM the first — and to this date — the only automotive company to assemble self-driving vehicles in a mass-production facility,” Barra said.

GM is building autonomous versions of the Bolt EV in the same plant it builds the pure electric small crossover that has an estimated 238 miles of electric range.

Barra in a rare December news conference in Detroit said GM would be the first high-volume automaker to produce a fully autonomous prototype in an assembly plant.

A few of the next-generation self-driving Bolt EVs are on the road in San Francisco and were deployed within the past month. The rest will be deployed in the three locations soon, GM officials said.

The newly built automated Bolts include a more integrated roof module with updated sensors and lidar; and include next-generation radar and an articulating radar on the fender, plus new radar sensors in the front and rear fascias. They are “more advanced, see farther, see nearer,” said Doug Parks, GM vice president for autonomous technology and vehicle execution.

The updated suite of hardware and software will help GM self-driving Bolts see farther and in different weather conditions and allow the car to drive a bit faster, Parks said.

Parks said once the new fleet is deployed, GM may bring back the initial 50 cars for updating.

GM and its subsidiary Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle software tech startup it bought last year, currently are testing the autonomous Bolts that include safety drivers behind the wheel who can take over in emergencies. Testing in Metro Detroit began in December and earlier last year in California and Arizona. GM does not break out how many vehicles are testing in each location.

GM confirmed earlier this year it has plans to significantly boost the number of self-driving Bolts to “hundreds of test vehicles” by the end of the year. In April, The Detroit News reported the company plans to put as many as 300 more self-driving vehicles on the road, citing filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

The automaker has said it is giving Cruise and founder and CEO Kyle Vogt responsibility for operations and financial performance of GM’s autonomous vehicle business, which it plans to commercialize.

“They have short-term and long-term financial targets and it’s monitored at the highest levels of the organization by Mary, Dan (Ammann) and myself on a very frequent basis,” GM Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens, said during an April conference call with analysts.

GM has said it plans to spend about $150 million per quarter on autonomous vehicle development.

GM and Barra say its self-driving technology first will be deployed in ridesharing fleets in major U.S. cities. While it has not given an exact timeframe, Barra, in the company’s recently released sustainability report, says the company has been working with “appropriate government agencies” with its plans.

“That’s our focus to be first at scale safely with autonomous vehicles in a ridesharing network,” Stevens said.

Last year, GM invested $500 million into ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. The two companies are working to develop a fleet of self-driving Bolt EVs that could be tested and used for ride-sharing purposes.

“We’re working with our partner Lyft,” Parks said. “And we’re still determining exactly how we’ll do our initial deployment.”

It appears GM has aspirations to open more Cruise Automation locations across the country. A job posting for a construction project manager in Phoenix said: “We’re looking for construction project manager to help launch new Cruise offices across the United States.” The posting said responsibility included oversight of two to three “concurrent new market deployments.”

GM declined to comment on any expansion plans or new office locations for Cruise Automation. Several states recently have enacted executive orders or passed legislation around self-driving vehicles including Washington, Colorado and Texas.

Barra would not say if GM will test any of the self-driving Bolts in other locations.

The Orion plant has about 1,150 employees, including 1,005 hourly workers represented by UAW Local 5960. The plant also builds the Chevrolet Sonic.

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