General Motors will more than triple the number of self-driving vehicles it has operating on public roads within a matter of weeks, giving its engineers one of the largest autonomous test fleets of any company developing the fledgling technology.
Executives said this week that they have completed production of 130 autonomous electric Chevrolet Bolt EV cars at an assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan, a process that began in January. They’re the first automated cars to be entirely produced on an assembly line in a traditional factory.
Destined for use in pilot projects already underway in San Francisco, Arizona, and Michigan, the Bolts will join GM’s original 50 autonomous vehicles to create a fleet of 180, a size that should help the company’s efforts to ramp up testing and data gathering.
“To achieve what we want from self-driving cars,
we must deploy them at scale.”
– Kyle Vogt, Cruise Automation
“To achieve what we want from self-driving cars, we must deploy them at scale,” said Kyle Vogt, chief executive officer of Cruise Automation, a self-driving-software company that GM bought for $1 billion in 2016.
At least for now, the influx means General Motors operates one of the largest autonomous fleets in the world. Waymo, the company culled from Google’s self-driving-car project, added 100 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans to a fleet that numbered “nearly 60” in December. The active number of cars in Waymo’s fleet is evolving, as the company phases out its Firefly prototypes and brings aboard 500 more autonomous Pacificas. Production on those vehicles began in May.
Ford currently has 30 autonomous vehicles active on public roads, with plans to increase the fleet to 90 by the end of 2017. Portions of a planned $700 million investment in the Flat Rock Assembly Plant south of Detroit include funds for outfitting the assembly lines for production of Level 4 autonomous vehicles.
Some of GM’s new Bolts are still at the Orion Township factory, and it’s unclear exactly when they’ll be delivered to their new testing environments. Whenever they arrive, GM intends to use them to prepare for a future when its customers hail vehicles via ride-sharing apps as much as they buy them at a dealership.
“Going forward, we will first introduce our autonomous technology to customers in ride-sharing fleets in major U.S. cities,” GM CEO Mary Barra told factory workers on Tuesday, adding emphasis to the company’s previously reported intentions. “We believe this has the potential to significantly reduce the cost per mile of ride-sharing services and really move us beyond the tipping point where transportation as a service becomes a very important business for us.”
Unlike Waymo, which is retiring its prototypes, a GM spokesperson said Wednesday that the company intends to use its original 50 autonomous vehicles in testing for “the foreseeable future.”
Those original cars include specially outfitted 2017 Chevrolet Bolts and multiple Nissan Leafs. The new, second-generation autonomous vehicles are built for the sole purpose of autonomous operations. They have a revamped stack of more than 40 sensors designed to detect the road environment, including lidar, radar, and cameras.
Whether operated by General Motors, Waymo, Ford, or countless others, the growing number of test vehicles will help to answer the frequent question of when autonomous cars will arrive on the nation’s roads. Increasingly, they’re already here.