GM drops the steer­ing wheel, ro­bot takes over

Self-driv­ing Bolt also lacks gas, brake ped­als

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Next year, Gen­eral Mo­tors

Co. will no longer need an en­gi­neer in the front seat babysit­ting the ro­bot brain that con­trols its self- driv­ing Chevro­let Bolt. The steer­ing wheel and ped­als will be gone, giv­ing to­tal con­trol to the ma­chine.

When GM starts t es­t­ing its au­ton­o­mous elec­tric sedan in San Fran­cisco rideshar­ing fleets, it’ ll likely be the first pro­duc­tion- ready car on the roads with­out the tools to let a hu­man as­sume con­trol. The an­nounce­ment Fri­day is the first sign from a ma­jor car­maker that en­gi­neers have enough con­fi­dence in self- driv­ing cars to let them truly go it alone.

“What’s re­ally spe­cial about this is if you look back 20 years from now, it’s the first car with­out a steer­ing wheel and ped­als,” said Kyle Vogt, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Cruise Au­to­ma­tion, the San Fran­cisco unit de­vel­op­ing the soft­ware for GM’s self-driv­ing cars.

GM will run the cars in a test batch for a ride- shar­ing pro­gram start­ing in 2019, and they won’t be with­out a safety net. The ve­hi­cles will travel on a fixed route con­trolled by their map­ping sys­tem, and the Detroit- based au­tomaker is ap­ply­ing for fed­eral per­mis­sion to run the test cars with­out a driver.

Vogt said the self- driv­ing Bolt has re­dun­dant sys­tems built in to back up the driv­ing sys­tems. If there’s a prob­lem, the car will slow down, pull over to the road­side and stop.

GM’s ex­per­i­ment will be a sig­nif­i­cant step for self­driv­ing cars. The au­tomaker and firms in­clud­ing Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Waymo unit and startup Zoox Inc. have demon­strated cars that can drive with so­called Level 4 au­ton­omy. Cars at that level can drive with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion but only in cer­tain geo­graphic ar­eas.

GM, Zoox, Waymo and oth­ers have all tested Level 4 cars, but usu­ally with a driver still at the wheel to take over in case the sys­tem doesn’t work prop­erly. Re­mov­ing the driver will re­ally test the technology, said Gill Pratt, CEO of Toy­ota Mo­tor Corp.’s Toy­ota Re­search In­sti­tute.

“If you’re test­ing Level 4 technology with a driver, you’re not re­ally test­ing it at Level 4,” he said in an in­ter­view at the CES technology show in Las Ve­gas this week.

Waymo and its pre­cur­sor, Google’s self- driv­ing car project, have tested au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in ur­ban ar­eas for years. Its Fire­fly pro­to­type had no steer­ing wheel or ped­als and in 2015 took a blind man for what the com­pany called “the world’s first truly self-driv­ing trip.”

Late l ast year, Waymo started an au­ton­o­mous ride­hail­ing ser­vice in Phoenix us­ing a self-driv­ing Chrysler Paci­fica mini­van. More re­cently, it dis­pensed with safety driv­ers, though the vans still have steer­ing wheels.

GM ar­gues Waymo’s tests are mostly in the greater Phoenix area, where traf­fic sit­u­a­tions are less com­plex than what it’s en­coun­tered in San Fran­cisco. A Waymo spokesman said in Novem­ber that the com­pany has tested its cars in 20 different cities.

GM, which also tests in Phoenix, said in a re­port re­leased Fri­day that for ev­ery 1,000 miles ( 1,600 km) of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing, its car needed to make 1,462 left turns in San Fran­cisco, com­pared with 919 in the Phoenix sub­urbs. Cruise Au­to­ma­tion’s car had to nav­i­gate con­struc­tion block­ing the lane more than 18 times as of­ten in the Bay Area and had to deal with emer­gency ve­hi­cles 270 times, ver­sus six Phoenix en­coun­ters.

GM’s au­ton­o­mous test cars were in 22 ac­ci­dents in Cal­i­for­nia last year, ac­cord­ing to data from the state. All other com­pa­nies com­bined had five ac­ci­dents. In Novem­ber, GM pres­i­dent Dan Am­mann at­trib­uted the ac­ci­dents to test­ing in a dense ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment and noted the com­pany’s cars weren’t at fault in any of the in­ci­dents.

GM said it’s filed a pe­ti­tion with the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic and Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion to test the cars. Cur­rent U.S. auto-safety stan­dards con­tain pro­vi­sions that act as de facto re­quire­ments that ve­hi­cles have driver con­trols such as a steer­ing wheel and ped­als.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers can get around t hose stan­dards by pe­ti­tion­ing NHTSA for ex­emp­tions, pro­vided they demon­strate that the ex­empted ve­hi­cle will be at least as safe as a con­ven­tional one.

If NHTSA ap­proves the pe­ti­tion, GM will still have to get per­mis­sion from states to run the steer­ing wheel- free cars. Cur­rently, only seven states al­low the technology to be tested with­out a safety driver, said Paul Hem­mers­baugh, GM’s chief coun­sel and pol­icy direc­tor for trans­porta­tion as a ser­vice.


GM says the self- driv­ing Chevro­let Bolt EV has re­dun­dant sys­tems built in to back up the driv­ing sys­tems.

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