GM Claims It Will Start Manufacturing Autonomous Cars Next Year

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

General Motors has announced it will begin manufacturing autonomous vehicles by 2019. Since purchasing Cruise Automation in 2016, GM has invested heavily into self-driving cars. However, its Chevrolet Bolt-based Cruise AV has only served as a testbed for the technology. That will change next year when the Orion Township assembly plant in Michigan starts building examples for commercial use.

If so, that would make General Motors the first company to sell an autonomous vehicle. However, it’s not entirely clear if that’s the ultimate goal. Thus far, GM has only said the autos will enter into a “ride-sharing environment” where the vehicles can be managed in a fleet — perhaps something akin to Uber.

Obviously, the analogy is as accurate as it is unfortunate. Uber recently suspended autonomous testing after one of its vehicles fatally struck a pedestrian earlier this week. While GM’s product planning can hardly be faulted for the goings-on at another company, the collision could see the general public wonder if production Cruise AVs are ready to take over the road.

“We’re continuing to make great progress on our plans to commercialize in 2019,” said GM President Dan Ammann in a statement. “Our Orion and Brownstown teams have proven experience in building high-quality self-driving test vehicles and battery packs, so they are well-prepared to produce the Cruise AV.”

The company has already built over 200 test examples of the model and over $100 million will be invested into the plants to prepare them for autonomous assembly. General Motors hasn’t stated any production goals but noted it’s already building the rooftop modules that house sensor arrays essential for operations.

Brownstone will continue handling the sensor modules and battery assembly as Orion gets a dedicated production line for the autonomous cars. Assembly of the Chevrolet Bolt and Sonic will continue at the site, as well.

GM has showcased its Cruise AV without a steering wheel in the past, generating some light criticism for its underperformance in real world environments. The vehicle seemed to have difficulty navigating construction-laden areas. Still, most agree GM’s autonomous tech is among the best currently in existence — roughly on par with Waymo, which is the only company currently running self-driving vehicles with passengers and no driver.

GM previously petitioned the Department of Transportation for permission to operate cars with no human driver and no manual controls on public roads. For now, current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards specifically call for manual controls. General Motors says if it does not receive the special dispensations on controls, its vehicles will still meet existing standards.

Meanwhile, the AV Start Act, crafted to help push through these changes, is currently being held up by a handful of concerned senators. Their primary concerns involve data protection, privacy, establishing what defines an autonomous vehicle, and ensuring any mechanical exemptions made for self-driving cars does not jeopardize public safety. If the bill passes, automakers would be able to test them with fewer regulations and market them directly to customers before updated federal safety regulations can be established. It would also prohibit individual states from adopting their own rules on autonomous vehicles.

[Image: General Motors]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Mar 20, 2018

    What a rich, untapped vein of law we're about to mine. I guess GM doesn't read the headlines.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Mar 21, 2018

    So, looking at those sensors and living in the upper Midwest I wonder how they keep those sensors clear when driving during heavy snow or freezing rain? How long does the car have to warm up after sitting in the parking lot in said conditions to clear them enough to even start driving? Do they have electric heating elements in them? Does snow or ice accumulation have any effect on them? Sorry, I have always wondered about that.

    • See 1 previous
    • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Mar 21, 2018

      @Vulpine And the lidar? I assume they aren't powerful enough to melt frozen stuff quickly or they would blind people.

  • Ronin Let's see the actuals first, then we can decide using science.What has been the effect of auto pollution levels since the 70s when pollution control devices were first introduced? Since the 80s when they were increased?How much has auto pollution specifically been reduced since the introduction of hybrid vehicles? Of e-vehicles?We should well be able to measure the benefits by now, by category of engine. We shouldn't have to continue to just guess the benefits. And if we can't specifically and in detail measure the benefits by now, it should make a rational person wonder if there really are any real world benefits.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Simply put, I like it.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Ah GM, never stop being you. GM is working hard to make FIAT look good.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Top Gear of the 2000's was a fresh concept and very well done. Sadly to say there isn't a TV show concept that doesn't eventually exhaust fresh ideas and, as a result, begins to rehash and wear out once were fresh ideas. The show eventually becomes a pale imitation of itself, then begins to embarrass itself, it will get to a point where it jumps the shark. Top Gear began to get stale, the Clarkson, Hammond and May left and the formula failed - surprise! the presenters were part of the magic. Fast forward many years and Grand Tower is trying hard to be Top Gear but it's all very obviously scripted (it always was by felt spontaneous in its original form), Clarkson, Hammond and May are much older, tired and have become caricatures of themselves. Guys, just stop. You should have stopped 10 years ago. Now you're just screwing with your reputations and legacies.
  • FreedMike Kudos to Toyota for making a legitimately slick looking piece (particularly in metallic cherry red). But PHEVs seem like a very narrow niche to me. Yes, the concept is cool - if you play your cards right you never have to fill up with gas, and the gas engine means you don't have to worry about charging facilities - but the operative words are "if you play your cards right." And PHEVs have all the drawbacks of EVs - spotty charging availability, decreased range in cold conditions, and higher price. Personally, I'd opt for a non plug-in Prius and use the plug-in money to upgrade the trim level. It's slower, but even the base Prius performs roughly on par with a Corolla or Civic, so it's not a dog anymore. But who buys a Prius to go fast in the first place? If I wanted to "go gas free," I'd just buy a BEV. YMMV, of course.