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GM poised to bring autonomous cars to the masses in 2019

DETROIT — General Motors is on the cusp of delivering a transportation future that many of its competitors are only beginning to envision.

The automaker on Friday announced plans to launch public ride-hailing services with autonomous vehicles that don’t have manual controls such as steering wheels and pedals.

The proposed starting date: next year — several years ahead of other automakers, and well ahead of industry expectations.

For now, the key obstacle is federal rules. GM has petitioned NHTSA, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, for permission to work around certain federal vehicle standards in order to field the vehicles without manual controls. A waiver would signal the beginning of a new future for the 109-year-old company and a fundamental change in the way vehicles and transportation networks function.

“If government approval is granted, and GM begins providing autonomous taxi service to end users in multiple markets, we’ll officially be living in a world of self-driving cars,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.

Indeed, the venture encompasses all the buzzwords of the mobility era: connected, autonomous, shared and electric.

The “Cruise AV” self-driving vehicle, developed with GM subsidiary Cruise Automation, is based on GM’s battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt EV and could be summoned with a smartphone app.

GM has long touted the Bolt not only as a practical and affordable electric car, but also as a platform for innovative business models and new technologies. GM says it has produced “a small number” of the autonomous cars without mechanical controls “for validation work” at the Orion Assembly plant in Michigan. The factory last year became the first mass-production site for autonomous vehicles.

GM would control the fleets through Cruise, according to a 33-page safety report about the cars published Friday on gm.com. The report, officials said, is meant to assist with consumer acceptance of the vehicles — arguably the largest hurdle the company would have to navigate following regulatory approval.

First to market

The aggressive approach is driven by a belief among GM executives that being first to market will give the company an enormous business advantage, as it moves toward its overarching mission of a zero-emission, zero-accident future.

“We think the technology is going to have a huge impact on the world,” GM President Dan Ammann said during a conference call. “Obviously, there will be an adoption curve where people get used to engaging with it and using it.”

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said his group believes self-driving vehicles could be a “game-changer for safety,” but he voiced concern that GM and others may be rushing the technology to market before it’s proved safe.

“GM and anyone else in this space has to demonstrate a number of different things before they actually see consumer acceptance for a vehicle without brakes or a steering wheel,” he told Automotive News on Friday. “They need to demonstrate this is about safety and not about shareholders.”

GM’s announcement “feels like a race to get out ahead of competitors instead of an incremental development to make the cars on the road today safer,” he added.

Officials at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said they were reluctant to comment without having read the petition, but the organization’s position is that exemptions shouldn’t be granted unless safeguards are in place to ensure safety that’s at least equivalent to that of traditional vehicles. A poll released by the group Friday found that 75 percent of the public is not comfortable with disabling equipment such as steering wheels and pedals in a computer-controlled vehicle.

“Not only are you rolling out autonomous vehicles without safety standards, but you are taking out the ability for drivers to intervene if they need to,” Shaun Kildare, the group’s director of research, said in an interview.

In a statement Friday, NHTSA acknowledged receiving the GM petition and said the Department of Transportation “will give it careful consideration.”

Regulatory approval

GM’s petition detailed the safety features of the Cruise AV and asked federal officials to allow the vehicles to circumvent 16 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that cover vehicles with human drivers but aren’t necessarily applicable to driverless vehicles.

“We’re seeking to maintain the same, equal safety but to achieve the safety objectives of some standards in a different way,” said Paul Hemmersbaugh, a former chief counsel for NHTSA who now serves as chief counsel for GM’s mobility efforts. Under the standards currently in place, Hemmersbaugh said, “We can’t achieve them without a human driver or without a steering wheel.”

If granted, the waiver would allow GM to launch as many as 2,500 vehicles a year as driverless taxis that could be summoned via a smartphone app and commanded using touch screens inside.

GM would be allowed to operate the vehicles in the seven or so states that don’t have laws restricting such vehicles. In other states, the automaker would have to work with local officials to change the rules. GM declined to say where it would like to launch the fleets.

GM is testing self-driving cars with manual controls and humans behind the wheels in Arizona, California and Michigan. It is expected to expand to New York City in 2018.

The testing has encountered more than a few bumps in the road. Cruise Automation test vehicles in California were involved in 22 accidents in 2017, according to the state’s autonomous vehicle accident reports.

Many of the accidents involved the self-driving vehicles being struck from behind, according to the filings, which do not identify which vehicles or drivers were possibly at fault.

Safety

The Cruise AVs feature five lidars, 16 cameras and 21 radars that provide redundant sensing and fail-safes in the event one of the technologies fails.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve worked to rapidly and iteratively integrate this technology into a production-ready vehicle,” said Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt.

Cruise has driven “hundreds of thousands of complex urban miles” in the self-driving cars, Vogt has said.

In the safety report published Friday, GM outlined its testing process as well as how the vehicles are designed to operate safely on public roadways.

Among the key takeaways:

  • The cars are designed to operate in known geofenced boundaries, and only on roads for which the company has developed high-definition map data.
  • They can learn from one another. If one car sees that a road is closed, the others automatically avoid it. They calculate their paths 10 times per second while predicting multiple paths at once and anticipating the movement of objects around them.
  • GM says the self-driving vehicles, including all the hardware and systems necessary for driverless operation, meet all its standards for performance, crash protection, reliability, serviceability, security and safety.
  • The Cruise AV has two main computer systems operating simultaneously, so if the primary computer has a problem, the secondary system is there to take over. The lidar, radar and sensors also feature sensing redundancies.

Pending legislation

The GM request conforms with regulations allowing an automaker to request exemptions from federal standards for up to 2,500 vehicles per year on public roadways. Legislation pending in Congress would dramatically increase the exemption allowance for self-driving cars, which manufacturers say is necessary to generate enough real-world data to refine the onboard computer systems.

Last fall, the House passed a bill that would allow companies to apply for 25,000 exemptions in a year, scaling up to 100,000 a year over a four-year period. A Senate bill passed out of the Commerce Committee would initially allow 15,000 exempt vehicles per manufacturer in the first year and up to 80,000 after three years.

Under current law, manufacturers are prohibited from rendering safety systems inoperable without adequate justification and approval from the DOT. The Senate bill would remove that approval requirement.

Eric Kulisch contributed to this report.

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