GM: AU­TONOMOUS CAR IS ‘MASS-PRO­DUCIBLE’

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY IAN THIBODEAU The Detroit News

To hear Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. tell it, Detroit’s No. 1 au­tomaker is lead­ing the race to ready au­tonomous ve­hi­cles for mass pro­duc­tion. But that might only be be­cause the au­tomaker is boast­ing about its progress.

Kyle Vogt, CEO of GM’s San Fran­cisco-based Cruise Au­to­ma­tion, this week wrote that Cruise and GM now have “the world’s first mass-pro­ducible car de­signed to op­er­ate with­out a driver.”

It’s a bold claim in an in­dus­try given to more than a few. Ri­val au­tomak­ers, tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and sup­pli­ers might be at the same point in their re­spec­tive pro­duc­tion time lines for fully au­tonomous, or driver­less ve­hi­cles, but they’re mostly not say­ing. GM is the first to say it has it fig­ured out.

“If Cruise has mas­tered the tech­nol­ogy el­e­ment, or is very close to mas­ter­ing it, and if GM has nailed the high-vol­ume pro­duc­tion as­pect, it puts the au­tomaker on the cusp of of­fer­ing real-world au­tonomous tech for busi­nesses and con­sumers,” said Karl Brauer, an­a­lyst with Cox Au­to­mo­tive.

And that would be huge. De­vel­op­ing a solid au­tonomous driv­ing sys­tem that can per­form in the real world would be big. De­liv­er­ing it in vol­ume to con­tem­po­rary global pro­duc­tion stan­dards would be a break­through.

“I haven’t seen or heard any in­di­ca­tion of a high-vol­ume, pro­duc­tion-ready au­tonomous ve­hi­cle from any­one else,” Brauer con­tin­ued. “That doesn’t mean an­other au­tomaker or au­tomaker/tech com­pany part­ner­ship isn’t just as close as GM and Cruise, but there’s noth­ing to sug­gest that at the mo­ment.”

Early last year, GM bought Cruise Au­to­ma­tion to help it with au­tonomous ve­hi­cle soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. The Cruise team has grown from about 40 peo­ple in Cal­i­for­nia to more than 100, and GM plans to hire 1,100 over the next five years.

Third-gen­er­a­tion self-driv­ing Chevro­let Bolt EVs — which GM pro­duces at its Lake Orion plant — are as­sem­bled at high vol­ume with a full suite of cam­eras, sen­sors, LI­DAR (light de­tec­tion and rang­ing) and other hard­ware needed for au­tonomous driv­ing.

Vogt said the new Bolts are the first au­tonomous ve­hi­cles to meet re­dun­dancy re­quire­ments that ex­perts say will be needed to safely put driver­less au­tonomous ve­hi­cles on the road for con­sumer use.

“Our new­est self-driv­ing car might look like a reg­u­lar car on the out­side, but the ve­hi­cle’s core sys­tem ar­chi­tec­ture more closely re­sem­bles that of a com­mer­cial air­plane or space­craft,” wrote Vogt. “It’s a com­plex and time con­sum­ing process to de­sign cars this way, but it’s the re­spon­si­ble thing to do.” Vogt’s read­ers are skep­ti­cal. “There is way too much hype in this in­dus­try,” wrote Michael DeKort, whose com­ment his­tory sug­gests he’s a fre­quent critic of au­tonomous ve­hi­cles on Medium.com. “Ev­ery­one is ex­ag­ger­at­ing what they are ca­pa­ble of to keep up with the other ex­ag­ger­a­tions so the money keeps flow­ing.

“NONE of you are driv­ing any real com­plex­ity es­pe­cially in bad weather etc. You are mis­lead­ing the pub­lic and giv­ing them a false sense of se­cu­rity.”

Still, the au­to­mated re­dun­dan­cies GM is re­port­ing could be a big step. Hu­man driv­ers cur­rently act as re­dun­dan­cies who can take over in the event of a sys­tems fail­ure, said Sam Abuel­samid, an­a­lyst with Nav­i­gant Re­search. If the power steer­ing goes out, a hu­man driver can mus­cle the car in the right di­rec­tion, for ex­am­ple.

But if there’s no hu­man in the car, or, like in Ford Mo­tor Co.’s case, the car doesn’t have a steer­ing wheel or brake ped­als to over­ride, the com­pa­nies need to en­sure there are sys­tems in place that can back up what­ever could fail.

Hav­ing all those re­dun­dan­cies cov­ered in the new Bolts would be a huge step, be­cause that would mean the car truly wouldn’t need a hu­man to take over in case of emer­gency. GM has not pro­vided any de­tails on those re­dun­dan­cies.

“For all we know, ev­ery­one has this,” said Abuel­samid. “But we don’t know. GM is the first one that has done it and ac­knowl­edged that they’ve done it.”

GM ear­lier this year said it planned to sig­nif­i­cantly boost the num­ber of self-driv­ing Bolts in test­ing to “hun­dreds of test ve­hi­cles” by the end of the year. In June, GM an­nounced it had built 130 self-driv­ing Bolts and they would join more than 50 al- ready in test­ing. The com­pany cur­rently is test­ing self-driv­ing Bolt EVs in San Fran­cisco, Scotts­dale, Ari­zona, and in Metro Detroit.

And while there are ques­tions lin­ger­ing about the hard­ware on the ve­hi­cles, Abuel­samid said the pro­duc­tion rate on the ve­hi­cles is im­pres­sive. The com­pany ap­pears to have made nearly 200 of th­ese ve­hi­cles in a year, and that could in­di­cate GM is truly ready to mass pro­duce au­tonomous ve­hi­cles.

What­ever its claims, GM is show­ing its hand in an in­dus­try bi­ased to se­crecy, and that’s cre­at­ing buzz. Au­tomak­ers like Ford, Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles and oth­ers cur­rently use ve­hi­cles retro­fit­ted with au­tonomous hard­ware and au­tonomous driv­ing sys­tems.

Ford CEO Jim Hack­ett and oth­ers on the au­tonomous teams there have said mul­ti­ple times that the Hy­brid Fu­sion ve­hi­cles the com­pany is us­ing as testers will not be the pro­duc­tion au­tonomous ve­hi­cles it rolls out in 2021. The Blue Oval could use vans, trucks or SUVs.

GM, mean­while, is mar­ried to the Bolt. Vogt said the Lake Orion plant is ca­pa­ble of churn­ing out hun­dreds of thou­sands of ve­hi­cles per year. The au­tonomous ve­hi­cles will only need soft­ware in­stalled when they come off the line.

If GM is, in fact, lead­ing the au­tonomous pack, it’s prob­a­bly only for a short time.

“Bar­ring more in­for­ma­tion from an­other au­to­mo­tive en­tity I think GM is lead­ing this race right now,” Brauer said. “I’m sure other big play­ers, in­clud­ing Daim­ler, Volk­swa­gen AG and Waymo, are do­ing in­cred­i­ble things right now. The race is far from over, and a new leader could ap­pear at any time.”

Cruise Au­to­ma­tion pho­tos

Line work­ers at Gen­eral Mo­tors Co.’s Lake Orion plant as­sem­ble an au­tonomous Bolt EV.

Cruise Au­to­ma­tion and Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. hope to pro­duce thou­sands of au­tonomous Bolt EVs for con­sumer use.

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