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GM unveils its driverless cars, aiming to lead the pack

December 1, 2017
SAN FRANCISCO — For more than a year, General Motors has tantalized investors with plans to build its future around self-driving cars.
It has regularly announced big investments and progress reports, but the company has kept its prototype vehicles largely under wraps — until now.
GM on Nov. 30 demonstrated its growing fleet of computer-operated, battery-powered Chevrolet Bolts in San Francisco to dozens of investment analysts eager to evaluate the automaker’s advanced test vehicles.
The event represents a critical step for GM as it seeks to establish leadership in the hotly contested race to bring driverless cars to market.
And although GM has been reluctant to show off the cars it has developed through a subsidiary, Cruise Automation, the company now wants to prove that self-driving models are getting closer to general use.
"Everything we are doing is geared to speed," GM President Daniel Ammann told journalists at a Nov. 28 event showcasing the cars.
To emphasize the company’s progress, Ammann said the cars would be ready for consumer applications in "quarters, not years."
Meeting that goal would probably give GM, the nation’s largest automaker, a jump on other companies developing self-driving models.
Industry analysts say autonomous vehicles could generate billions of dollars in additional revenue and profit for automakers and technology companies, primarily by selling or leasing them to ride-hailing services, taxi fleets and delivery companies.
For GM, the self-driving program is a cornerstone to long-term growth that is not dependent on simply selling vehicles to individual drivers.
"GM has changed the narrative of the company’s future," Adam Jonas, a Morgan Stanley analyst, said in a research report on Nov. 28.
Other automakers, such as Ford Motor, Volkswagen and Toyota, are pushing to accelerate their own electric and autonomous-vehicle programs.
 
The field is also crowded with competitors from Silicon Valley, such as Google, Apple, Uber and the electric-car maker Tesla.
GM has a blend of financial resources, automotive experience and management resolve that position it strongly to compete with other automakers and big tech companies. But it also has a legacy of failures to overcome — none bigger than its collapse into bankruptcy in 2009.
The leadership of the company’s chief executive, Mary Barra, was tested soon after she took over in 2014 when it was revealed that GM had produced millions of small cars equipped with faulty ignitions responsible for 124 deaths.
The scandal slowed GM’s comeback, but it also galvanized its executives to focus on making its cars safer, and ultimately to pursue development of fully autonomous vehicles.
"GM is a much more entrepreneurial company now than it’s ever been," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "That has happened since the bankruptcy — the fact they are no longer wedded to doing things the way they did in the past."
 
In the summer of 2015, Barra and other senior GM executives began a series of visits to California, to study advances in self-driving cars and to scout potential partners in developing autonomous models.
In addition to observing how companies like Google were developing driverless technology, the executives became acquainted with work being done by Cruise Automation, a tiny start-up working out of a San Francisco warehouse.
 
"We had to be very honest with ourselves," Ammann recalled recently. "There were some capabilities we did not have and that we needed to have if we really wanted to pursue this."
And it was up to Mr. Ammann — an industry outsider born in New Zealand who worked as a Wall Street investment banker before joining GM — to deliver the crucial piece.
 
He concluded that the perfect match was Cruise, which had fewer than 40 employees but was moving quickly to retrofit basic cars with its self-driving equipment.
 
"What they brought us was exactly what we were missing," Ammann said.
 
Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s co-founder and software guru, said that he had been intrigued by GM’s interest, but hesitant to rush into a partnership with a huge, century-old automaker from Detroit.
 
But after several one-on-one meetings with Ammann, he became convinced that GM’s manufacturing expertise could greatly advance Cruise’s mission.
 
"Dan said to me, ‘You want to take the chaos off the roads by introducing this great technology — can you really deny that we would get there much faster working together?’ " Vogt said.
 
Vogt had learned the pitfalls of trying to adapt mainstream cars with expensive cameras, sensors and electronic equipment for use on public roadways. Converting a handful of such vehicles was a challenge. Producing fleets of them seemed beyond Cruise’s abilities.
 
"You don’t see any start-ups building iPhones," he said.
 
After GM purchased Cruise for an estimated $1 billion in cash, stock and incentive packages, the companies began installing computers and other equipment in all-electric Chevy Bolts as they came off the assembly line at the automaker’s plant in suburban Detroit.
 
While Cruise began expanding its San Francisco operation to what is now nearly 400 employees, GM set up a team of hundreds of engineers at its technical center in Warren, Mich., to support the self-driving program.
A GM vice president, Doug Parks, was assigned to work daily with Vogt and his California team. Together, they designed self-driving Bolts to the safety and quality standards that GM applied to its regular cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles.
 
"We are working fast and furiously," said Parks, an engineer who has worked for GM for 33 years. "It is super exciting, and I love what the company is becoming."
 
So far, the partnership between GM and Cruise has produced about 180 autonomous Bolts, which are constantly being tested in San Francisco, as well as in Arizona and Michigan. The company plans to begin tests in Manhattan early next year.
 
Vogt is keen to prove that self-driving models can navigate complex urban environments such as downtown San Francisco, rather than just highways and suburban streets.
 
On Nov. 28, journalists were given rides in the demonstration models. For 20 minutes, the self-driving Bolts traversed the hilly, narrow and congested streets of the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood — stopping for pedestrians, slowing to pass double-parked vehicles, navigating gently away from bicycles.
 
A Cruise employee was behind the steering wheel, ready to assume control of the car if it misjudged traffic or was headed for a collision. But during a reporter’s ride, no driver intervention was required.
 
The car traveled more slowly than driver-operated vehicles on the road, and seemed to exercise extreme caution rounding corners or avoiding obstacles. Yet it covered more than two miles without a hitch, despite encountering what its onboard computer said were 265 people, 49 bicycles and 489 cars.
 
Ammann beamed when details of the test ride were shared, declaring, "This technology is coming along faster than anyone thinks."
 
 

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