July 31, 2019
By Jamie L. LaReau
General Motors is delaying the launch of its self-driving cars citing the challenge to safely remove people from behind the wheel.
About 18 months ago, the automaker had promised that its self-driving unit, GM Cruise, would launch a fleet of autonomous vehicles in the form of a ride-sharing service by the end of this year.
But in a blog post Wednesday, GM Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said while the automaker has made strides in hiring key talent and gaining the financial backing needed to continue testing the cars, “in order to reach the level of performance and safety validation required to deploy a fully driverless service in San Francisco, we will be significantly increasing our testing and validation miles over the balance of this year, which has the effect of carrying the timing of fully driverless deployment beyond the end of the year.”
The additional testing will provide GM Cruise with “crucial operational learnings” from running a larger scale fleet and ride service, which it currently runs for its employees, said Ammann.
It also means San Francisco residents will see more of the Cruise AVs on the roads being tested, he said. Cruise owns nearly 40% of all of the electric vehicle fast chargers in San Francisco, he said. It is building the largest EV fast charger station in the country there.
GM bought GM Cruise in 2016. Since then, it has been aggressively testing the electric self-driving vehicles in San Francisco and rapidly expanded. It has grown from a staff of 40 people to nearly 1,500, Ammann said in the blog, hiring top engineers.
Cruise also has raised about $7.25 billion from technology investors such as the SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price and GM and Honda.
“This gives us the deep resources necessary to scale our services in San Francisco and beyond,” Ammann wrote.
Still, auto industry experts had expressed doubt this year that GM Cruise could safely put self-driving taxis on the road by the end of this year.
But despite GM idling five of its plants in North America this year and cutting about 14,000 hourly and salaried jobs to save $6 billion by 2020, its commitment to electric and autonomous vehicle technology has been unwavering. GM leaders often refer to GM’s desire to be a technology company that builds cars, creating a future with “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”
In February, GM CEO Mary Barra said that GM continues “to make rapid progress with the technology” when asked if GM would launch a fleet of self-driving cars by year end.
Pressed again for a launch date in April after GM reported earnings, Barra said: “I think you’ll see updates later this year. We are very pleased with where we’re at on our continued rate of progress. We’re doing our testing in one of the most complex environments in the U.S. (San Francisco). We have a very strong position and we have a very strong safety record.”
In his blog, Ammann said that GM is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the self-driving space. The company is running neck-and-neck with Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, to be the first to bring the robot car ride sharing to market. The two companies are considered the leaders in a crowded field, and San Francisco is the proving grounds to refine the technology.
But, wrote Ammann, Cruise is the only company with self-driving cars that are manufactured on a large scale automotive assembly line “to the same rigorous standards of safety and quality as any other production car.”
GM builds the Cruise AV cars at its Orion Assembly Plant in Lake Orion, Michigan. The first Cruise AVs were Chevrolet Bolts, Chevrolet’s all-electric vehicle, that used two Lidar sensors on the roof. GM Cruise built 130 of the second-generation of its AVs in 2017 and those had a bigger suite of sensors. Then, later that year, it added another 50 of the cars. GM no longer calls them Bolts, but rather the Cruise AV.
“This is not a concept car—hundreds of the best Honda, GM and Cruise engineers are working together on-site in Warren, Michigan, where they are deep into the vehicle development process,” wrote Ammann. “This new vehicle completely re-imagines from the ground up what a car can be and we can’t wait to share more in the near future.”
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