GM drops steer­ing wheel, gives ro­bots to­tal con­trol


Next year, Gen­eral Mo­tors 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 test­ing 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 of­fi­cer of Cruise Au­to­ma­tion, the San Fran­cisco-based unit de­vel­op­ing the soft­ware for GM’s self-driv­ing cars.

GM will run the cars in a test batch for a rideshar­ing 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.

The au­tomaker and com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Waymo unit and startup Zoox Inc. have demon­strated cars that can drive with so-called Level 4 au­ton­omy.

As de­fined by the So­ci­ety of Au­to­mo­tive En­gi­neers, 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.

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