GM's First Self-driving Car May Keep Manual Controls

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
gms first self driving car may keep manual controls

This time last year, we were under the impression that General Motors’ first attempt at an autonomous vehicle would come without pedals, a steering wheel, or any other controls traditionally associated with driving. Cruise Automation, the GM subsidiary tasked with developing the vehicle, seemed confident it could deliver something that didn’t need to rely on human intervention to be truly safe. This promise was reiterated by GM in January of 2018 via a request to produce the car sans controls though federal exemption.

U.S. laws governing what constitutes a safe automobile were written before autonomous vehicles entered development, creating problems. It wasn’t evident to anyone that GM could legally manufacture a vehicle that lacked traditional controls, as existing laws stipulated that all automobiles had to have them. While the Department of Transportation has proven rather lenient on policing AVs in terms of testing, rewriting the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or providing exemptions was a bridge too far — especially when self-driving tech is new, frequently misunderstood, and backed heavily by corporate interests. The existing guidelines remain unchanged and new legislation pertaining to self-driving vehicles has stalled in Congress.

Apparently sick of waiting, General Motors now appears satisfied to just build AVs with manual controls.

While the message didn’t come through official channels, Automotive News reports that at least one top GM executive has confirmed the most likely scenario involves launching the Cruise AV using older tech that incorporates a steering wheel and pedal controls.

“Until we have exemptions, which we filed a petition for, and/or law changes, we probably wouldn’t go forward with Gen 4,” Doug Parks, GM vice president of autonomous and electric vehicle programs, said Thursday during the 2019 RBC Capital Markets Future of Mobility Conference in Palo Alto, CA. “But we think it’s really something we’ve got to talk about, we’ve got to work on.”

The automaker is currently testing the third generation of its autonomous vehicles, mostly in and around Cruise Automations’ home base in San Francisco. While there have been some developmental hangups, Cruise and GM have managed, thus far, to avoid the type of negative publicity surrounding several of its rivals. It’s seen as a frontrunner in the race for vehicular autonomy. Last we heard, GM expects to launch its autonomous fleet before the end of 2019 as part of a taxi service that sounds similar to the pilot programs introduced by Waymo.

GM has not revised this timeline, possibly because it could put investments at risk. But it does appear willing to launch with traditional controls. “When we’re ready to deploy, we’ll most likely deploy with the Gen 3 technology,” Parks said, adding that Gen 3 vehicles would meet existing safety standards and are already production-ready.

The most plausible reason for this change is the government’s inability to adapt automotive safety laws for autonomous vehicles in a timeline that suits General Motors and its investors. However, not rushing into a decision that would help establish the regulatory framework for an entire subset of vehicles that could very well change everything we know about transportation isn’t the worst idea in history. The alternative scenario is that GM’s self-driving systems aren’t as highly evolved as previously claimed and the company is using this as a clever smoke screen.

Despite being over a year old, the exemption is still pending. The Department of Transportation issued a request for public comment on GM’s petition for a waiver in March of this year, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying it would “consider all comments in order to keep public safety a priority while also fostering innovation.” If granted, the waiver would allow General Motors to launch as many as 2,500 Cruise AVs per year as driverless taxis operated entirely via touch screens.

[Images: General Motors]

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3 of 4 comments
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.
  • VoGhost I'm clearly in the minority here, but I think this is a smart move. Apple is getting very powerful, and has slowly been encroaching on the driving experience over the last decade. Companies like GM were on the verge of turning into mere hardware vendors to the Apple brand. "Is that a new car; what did you get?" "I don't remember. But it has the latest Apple OS, which is all I care about." Taking back the driving experience before it was too late might just be GM's smartest move in a while.
  • VoGhost Can someone Christian explain to me what this has to do with Jesus and bunnies?
  • Del My father bought GM cars in the 60's, but in 1971 he gave me a used Datsun (as they were called back then), and I'm now in my 70's and am happy to say that GM has been absent from my entire adult life. This article makes me gladder than ever.