Holden’s parent company US-based General Motors announced overnight that they have filed a petition with the Department of Transportation for permission to deploy self-driving vehicles in 2019. GM plans on shipping their level 5 autonomous Cruise AV as the first production ready vehicle with no steering wheel, no pedals and no mirrors. This is happening fast, faster than most of us thought.
The details of GMs exact plans for driverless vehicles are very thin on the ground, but permission to allow them on roads without the control of humans is a major milestone (read: hurdle) that needs to be overcome for any company wishing to deliver the future to consumers.
To date, there’s been some exceptions made for testing vehicles in certain states, but an application to the Department of Transport means GM is looking for America-wide acceptance for their technology. As GM is a global manufacturer, this immediately places a focus on the legislation of other countries, like Australia and should initiate conversations between our legislators and companies that believe their technology is ready.
The road to full autonomous driving happening much faster than many of us expected. With the exception of Tesla (they may hit this benchmark in 2018), most auto makers were on a trajectory of 2020/2021 before we’d see driverless vehicles as a realistic option in the showroom. Even then, some of these vehicles (likely due to the extra cost) would be targeted at corporate fleet or ride sharing companies, but GM seems to be playing the their hand early and going right after the mainstream customer.
Relieving humans from their duties behind the wheel has some serious opportunities, not only for congestion on our roads, but also dramatically changing the lives of our first responders and health professionals as vehicle related injuries and deaths are likely to plummet as these high-tech vehicles take over. It also has massive implications for insurance companies, what happens to an industry that protects against accidents, when the technology is good enough to avoid accidents all together?
GM points to the statistic of 94% of vehicle crashes where the primary cause of the crash was the driver. Basically humans are terrible at manoeuvring their vehicles through the world of obstacles and we’ve clearly now reached the point where computers are safer, not equal, but by a significant margin over humans.
Something interesting to observe is the familiar, yet different cabin of the autonomous Cruise AV. While many others are looking at re-engineering vehicles to have spin around chairs to face all the occupants, GM are clearly giving customers a familiar driving experience, just without the wheel and pedals. There’s actually something quite appealing and maybe even reassuring about changing the inside of the vehicle slowly, rather than trying to get consumers over the mental hurdle of completely disrupting everything they know about cars.
Having 5 passenger seats and no driver, allows the vehicle configuration to be largely symmetrical as well and that actually looks quite beautiful. This is also a massive boost to one of the most frustrating issues for globalised production, that’s the left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive differences. More components, more complexity and ultimately more cost, so there’s an opportunity here that things get simplified.
The task ahead for engineers at GM is not an easy one, as they embark on a journey of minaturisation of the array of cameras and sensors on the Cruise AV last time we seen it. During research and development, having a strange-looking, aerodynamically inefficient vehicle is fine, but when targeting the average consumer, this needs to be transformed into discreet integrations that perform equally as well.
The mirrors are one of the more interesting points with the photo released overnight and perhaps one of the most significant changes people haven’t considered. With a full 360 degree understanding of whats around the car, there’s really no need for the driver (or passenger) to be monitoring their mirrors. Instead we see them replaced with sensors (likely LIDAR) that make up part of the vehicle guidance system. Mirrors also have a big impact on the way the air flows around the body of the vehicle, creating a lot of drag, so reducing or eliminating them has serious benefits.
Some else GM is aligning with this autonomous push is the road to electrification as well. Almost all autonomous vehicles will be powered by electric powertrains, not combustion. There’s a few good reasons for this, but with cars like the Chevy Bolt, GM are getting serious about it.
The company says,
At General Motors, we envision a future with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.
Zero crashes to save lives
Each year close to 1.25 million people die in car crashes around the world, 40,000 in the United States alone. More than 2 million people are injured. Human error is a major contributing factor in 94 percent of these crashes.
Zero emissions to leave our children a healthier planet
Vehicles release almost 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
to give our customers back their precious time. In the United States, commuters spend about a week of their lives in traﬃc each and every year. That’s a week not spent with those we love, doing what we want to do and being where we want to be.
The consequences of this announcement by GM will be felt across the industry and certainly have some automakers rewriting their timelines. Australian law makers also should get ready for this future and given the speed at which legislation moves, best we start now. There’ll be a lot of people who want to survey the public and get their feelings on the robot cars of the future and if they’re safe enough without humans. This is pointless.
Your everyday person on the street doesn’t have the information necessary to make the judgement on the technical capabilities of these vehicles. This needs to be a direct negotiation with the engineers and companies who create them and our law makers and automotive regulators. Each automaker would still have a set of benchmarks to meet, much like the crash tests and emission standards, but to be level 5 autonomous certified, they need to demonstrate their technology. Its the data here that should be the determiner, not public opinion.