Get ready, people. The Jetsons Era is right around the corner.
Starting next year, General Motors will begin deploying a fleet of up to 2,500 self-driving cars that will have no steering wheel or pedals, making them the first true robo-taxis to hit the streets.
The vehicles, unveiled today, represent the fourth generation of GM’s autonomous vehicle (AV) technology since it acquired Cruise Automation, a Silicon Valley startup, in early 2016.
GM is escalating its high-stakes battle with Waymo, Google’s former self-driving car unit, to commercialize the world’s first fully self-driving cars. Google was the early mover back in 2009, igniting a tech race that represents the biggest change in personal transportation since horses were replaced with horseless carriages more than a century ago. Dozens of companies, including BMW, Volvo, Mercedes, Uber, Tesla, and Baidu, have joined the hunt but at the moment, it looks like a two-horse race between Waymo and GM.
Waymo expects to begin a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix later this year using modified versions of Chrysler Pacific minivans. Although there will be no safety engineer in the driver’s seat, the minivans will still have a steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedals.
GM, by contrast, won’t launch its ride-hailing service until 2019 but it will use purpose-built autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles (called Cruise AVs) that will be mass-produced at a factory in Michigan. Cruise Automation founder Kyle Vogt said 20 years from now, people will look back on these first driverless taxis as a milestone in automotive history.
Where you’d typically find a steering wheel and pedals, there is just a mirror image of the passenger side, with a center console between the seats. Although it looks simpler, under the skin the Cruise EV is equipped with redundant sensors, computers, and power supplies to ensure safety. GM has filed a 32-page report explaining the safety engineering behind the vehicle with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
GM is asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for permission to commercially deploy up to 2,500 Cruise AVs in ride-hailing fleets in 2019, probably starting in San Francisco, where most of its testing to date has taken place.
GM says the Cruise AV will meet all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS), but in some cases, the laws don’t apply because the requirements are based on the assumption that there is a human driver. For example, one federal standard applies to the triggering pressure for airbags mounted inside steering wheels. “When you don’t have a steering wheel, it makes no sense to talk about steering wheel-mounted airbags,” explained Paul Hemmersbaugh, GM’s chief counsel and policy director for transportation as a service.
In 16 such cases, GM will seek permission for its vehicle to meet the safety purpose of the regulation another way, for example, in the case of airbags, by matching the dash-mounted airbags on the passenger side.
If GM gets the necessary FMVSS waivers from NHTSA, it will be cleared to deploy up to 2,500 vehicles on public roads in seven states where autonomous vehicle testing is currently permitted. Meanwhile, it continues to push for new regulations that would “remove unnecessary roadblocks to new safety technology…and advance the safety of self-driving vehicle technology.” One proposal would raise the driverless vehicle waiver limit from 2,500 to 100,000 vehicles, helping GM to reach its goal of mass production.
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