GM's Driverless Cars Expected to Roll Out Next Year

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【Summary】According to company head Mary Barra, the units will initially operate in geo-fenced locations, like Waymo’s current fleet of self-driving vans.

Michael Cheng    Dec 15, 2018 6:00 AM PT
GM's Driverless Cars Expected to Roll Out Next Year

General Motors (GM) has hit several important milestones in the race to build fully autonomous cars. The auto company's investment in Cruise, the brand's self-driving arm, is starting to pay off based on a new $43 billion valuation from RBC Capital Markets earlier this year.  

Riding on such developments and favor from investors, including Japan-based SoftBank and Honda, GM recently confirmed it is on track to releasing driverless vehicles on public roads by 2019.

Deploying Driverless Vehicles

According to company head Mary Barra, the units will operate in geo-fenced locations, like Waymo's current fleet of self-driving vans. The GM chief executive did not specify the exact locations during the announcement. Cruise has been testing its autonomous fleet in San Francisco, which will likely be one of the first cities selected for deployment.

Moreover, Barra hinted that if its autonomous vehicles will roll out in San Francisco, steep and winding roads will not be included in the geo-fenced zones. Initially, the units will also travel at a maximum speed of 30 mph.

Such challenges suggest the cars are not yet suitable for navigating on highways and could be limited to cities, neighborhoods and campuses. Fast traveling speeds are not a requirement for robo-taxi services, a niche GM is currently targeting with its autonomous driving platform. The move to offer driverless taxi services would allow the company to directly compete with Uber and Waymo.

"Once you are able to demonstrate that you can have autonomous vehicles safely operating in a city like San Francisco – that really then opens up the whole market," said Barra.

"We have also done a significant amount of work to set our safety strategy of how we'll demonstrate that the vehicle is actually safer than a human driver."

For GM (and other automakers developing driverless platforms), the road to fully autonomous vehicles is not a straight path. The business is in the process of addressing a handful of safety-related challenges that come with the new technology. In addition to improving reliability, the units must cater to data-sharing collaborations with local fire departments and law enforcement groups. Such protocols would enable the cars to respond to the presence of emergency vehicles in a timely manner.

Sticking with Winners

Despite GM's challenges with rolling out driverless cars on public roads, the company is being viewed as a strong contender in the nascent sector. The car manufacturer has the ability to scale risky automotive projects, as seen in its decision to create a subsidiary to cater to long-term autonomous driving projects.

Other automakers are following suit and have opted to apply a similar strategy. Furthermore, compared to struggling automotive startups, GM has crucial experience in handling high production volume and quotas.

"GM is the most obvious choice in our US autos coverage," explained David Whiston, an automotive equity analyst at Morningstar. 

"The addition of SoftBank and Honda as Cruise shareholders suggests to us that GM is open to a spin-off in some form in the future, but exactly when is hard to say."

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