GM shows hand in autonomous vehicle race

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

To hear General Motors Co. tell it, Detroit’s No. 1 automaker is leading the race to ready autonomous vehicles for mass production. But that might only be because the automaker is boasting about its progress.

Cruise Automation and General Motors Co. hope to produce thousands of autonomous Bolt EVs for consumer use.

Kyle Vogt, CEO of GM’s San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, this week wrote that Cruise and GM now have “the world’s first mass-producible car designed to operate without a driver.”

It’s a bold claim in an industry given to more than a few. Rival automakers, technology companies and suppliers might be at the same point in their respective production time lines for fully autonomous, or driverless vehicles, but they’re mostly not saying. GM is the first to say it has it figured out.

“If Cruise has mastered the technology element, or is very close to mastering it, and if GM has nailed the high-volume production aspect, it puts the automaker on the cusp of offering real-world autonomous tech for businesses and consumers,” said Karl Brauer, analyst with Cox Automotive.

And that would be huge. Developing a solid autonomous driving system that can perform in the real world would be big. Delivering it in volume to contemporary global production standards would be a breakthrough.

Line workers at General Motors Co.’s Lake Orion plant assemble an autonomous Bolt EV.

“I haven’t seen or heard any indication of a high-volume, production-ready autonomous vehicle from anyone else,” Brauer continued. “That doesn’t mean another automaker or automaker/tech company partnership isn’t just as close as GM and Cruise, but there’s nothing to suggest that at the moment.”

Early last year, GM bought Cruise Automation to help it with autonomous vehicle software development. The Cruise team has grown from about 40 people in California to more than 100, and GM plans to hire 1,100 over the next five years.

Third-generation self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs — which GM produces at its Lake Orion plant — are assembled at high volume with a full suite of cameras, sensors, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and other hardware needed for autonomous driving.

Vogt said the new Bolts are the first autonomous vehicles to meet redundancy requirements that experts say will be needed to safely put driverless autonomous vehicles on the road for consumer use.

“Our newest self-driving car might look like a regular car on the outside, but the vehicle’s core system architecture more closely resembles that of a commercial airplane or spacecraft,” wrote Vogt. “It’s a complex and time consuming process to design cars this way, but it’s the responsible thing to do.”

Vogt’s readers are skeptical.

“There is way too much hype in this industry,” wrote Michael DeKort, whose comment history suggests he’s a frequent critic of autonomous vehicles on “Everyone is exaggerating what they are capable of to keep up with the other exaggerations so the money keeps flowing.

“NONE of you are driving any real complexity especially in bad weather etc. You are misleading the public and giving them a false sense of security.”

Still, the automated redundancies GM is reporting could be a big step. Human drivers currently act as redundancies who can take over in the event of a systems failure, said Sam Abuelsamid, analyst with Navigant Research. If the power steering goes out, a human driver can muscle the car in the right direction, for example.

But if there’s no human in the car, or, like in Ford Motor Co.’s case, the car doesn’t have a steering wheel or brake pedals to override, the companies need to ensure there are systems in place that can back up whatever could fail.

Having all those redundancies covered in the new Bolts would be a huge step, because that would mean the car truly wouldn’t need a human to take over in case of emergency. GM has not provided any details on those redundancies.

“For all we know, everyone has this,” said Abuelsamid. “But we don’t know. GM is the first one that has done it and acknowledged that they’ve done it.”

GM earlier this year said it planned to significantly boost the number of self-driving Bolts in testing to “hundreds of test vehicles” by the end of the year. In June, GM announced it had built 130 self-driving Bolts and they would join more than 50 already in testing. The company currently is testing self-driving Bolt EVs in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Arizona, and in Metro Detroit.

And while there are questions lingering about the hardware on the vehicles, Abuelsamid said the production rate on the vehicles is impressive. The company appears to have made nearly 200 of these vehicles in a year, and that could indicate GM is truly ready to mass produce autonomous vehicles.

Whatever its claims, GM is showing its hand in an industry biased to secrecy, and that’s creating buzz. Automakers like Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and others currently use vehicles retrofitted with autonomous hardware and autonomous driving systems.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett and others on the autonomous teams there have said multiple times that the Hybrid Fusion vehicles the company is using as testers will not be the production autonomous vehicles it rolls out in 2021. The Blue Oval could use vans, trucks or SUVs.

GM, meanwhile, is married to the Bolt. Vogt said the Lake Orion plant is capable of churning out hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year. The autonomous vehicles will only need software installed when they come off the line.

If GM is, in fact, leading the autonomous pack, it’s probably only for a short time.

“Barring more information from another automotive entity I think GM is leading this race right now,” Brauer said. “I’m sure other big players, including Daimler, Volkswagen AG and Waymo, are doing incredible things right now. The race is far from over, and a new leader could appear at any time.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau