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.