ORION TWP., MI – General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra says the automaker makes history today by becoming the first company to apply mass-production techniques to autonomous vehicles with the rollout of 130 self-driving next-generation Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles.
However, the Bolt EVs will not being going into the hands of everyday Americans. That day remains far into the future. They instead will join a fleet of 50 other slightly less sophisticated autonomous Bolts being tested on the streets of Detroit, San Francisco and Scottsdale, AZ.
Nonetheless, the fact that GM has applied mass-production methods represents a major milestone toward the vision of safer, more convenient and environmentally friendly transportation.
The latest-generation autonomous Bolts began rolling of the Orion Assembly line here an hour north of Detroit in January. GM says the cars contain the automaker’s newest autonomous technology, such as complex sensors, radars, cameras and other hardware.
The technology is the result of years of GM research and development enhanced by the Detroit automaker’s Cruise Automation unit, a San Francisco-based self-driving startup it acquired last year in a blockbuster deal meant to beat rivals such as Tesla and Google’s Waymo unit to market with the cars.
“This production milestone brings us one step closer to making our vision of personal mobility a reality,” Barra tells journalists and assembly plant managers and workers. “Expansion of our real-world test fleet will help ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we build into all of our vehicles.”
During her remarks, Barra underscores the importance of first applying autonomous technology within EVs because they have the onboard power levels necessary to run the extra equipment. They also operate quietly and with zero emissions, she adds, which make them ideal for urban areas where autonomous cars are expected to play the biggest role. A typical vehicles gets used 5%-6% of the time, Barra offers, while in a ride-sharing environment it is deployed 25% of the time.
“Think about the environmental impact you get when you’re using an EV in (ride sharing),” she tells WardsAuto at the event. “It provides further opportunity for us to be responsible from an environmental perspective.”
She also says autonomous EVs make sense for ride-sharing fleets in their early deployment, which will build a business case for building and marketing self-driving cars to everyday customers.
“This is an important element of it,” she says.
Barra says GM remains open to potentially working with other ride-sharing and ride-hailing partners in addition to its investment in Lyft.
“We talk to a lot of different companies on all aspects,” she says.
Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer-autonomous and electrified vehicles and new technology at GM, says the automaker is working quickly to deploy autonomous EVs to ride-sharing fleets but stops short of offering an exact timetable.
“The pace is extraordinary,” she says of autonomous R&D. “We are moving forward in a fast and furious manner.”
The Bolts under testing on the busy streets of San Francisco operate in a geo-fenced area. They are considered Level 4 autonomous vehicles, or one stage away from full autonomy.
“We chose to go after the most difficult environment, and that’s why we know we are ready for real-world deployment,” she says.