December 23, 2019

It’s been nearly two years since GM provided images of a next-generation Bolt EV that lacks a steering wheel or pedals. All of a sudden, in the past couple weeks, top GM execs have been talking up its electric hatch as a self-driving platform. Now Reuters reports that CEO Mary Barra met last week with US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to discuss getting those robo-Bolts on the road.

Acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator James Owens told Reuters that NHTSA officials are “crawling through” petitions for highly automated vehicles that don’t have human occupants. Owens said:

I expect we’re going to be able to move forward with these petitions soon — as soon as we can.

There’s a lot of back and forth between us and the companies. We’re sharing with them thoughts and ideas and concerns. They come back to us with additional information.

Owens said that NHTSA would “definitely” decide in 2020.

Autonomous-vehicle companies, including GM’s Cruise and Nuro (a maker of small self-driving delivery vehicles), have petitioned the federal agency to allow up to 2,500 vehicles to run on public roads.

GM Cruise Bolt EV

Chao said that the “complexity was far greater than what a lot of very optimistic advocates were thinking.”

Last week, we reported that GM was planning to introduce one or more new electric vehicles ­— most likely in the autonomous arena ­— at CES next month. But the company said it failed to meet the deadline because of the United Automobile Workers’ (UAW) strike.

The new pressure on the DOT gives hints that something is up with GM, the Bolt, and a steering-wheel-less car. “All AVs should be EVs,” Barra said last week.

Cruise and General Motors are planning a media event in January in San Francisco to unveil new technology. No further details are available yet.

GM bought Cruise Automation in 2016. Then, in early 2018, GM unveiled an autonomous Bolt EV without a steering wheel or pedal, with the idea of bringing it to market in some form in 2019. After a series of high-profile accidents involving self-driving cars — and a broad realization of the technical and legal obstacles — deadlines were extended indefinitely.

But last week, Barra told Motortrend, “We see a line of sight, but we’re not going to put another date out there.” Now the Reuters report shows that GM is pushing for approval of its fully autonomous Bolts.

Cruise in San Francisco

Meanwhile, just two weeks ago, Cruise president Dan Ammann, formerly president of GM, published an article on Medium titled, “We Need to Move Beyond the Car.”

Ammann criticized the personal, privately owned automobile as dangerous, polluting, expensive, and a cause of urban congestion.

More than 3 in 4 of us still drive to work in single-occupant vehicles, which is basically unchanged over the past 20 years. Electric vehicle adoption remains stubbornly stuck at under 1%. And, most importantly, traffic accidents are still the leading cause of death for 5- to 29-year olds, globally.

Ammann said there’s a place for public transit and micro-mobility. But he called for a much more significant transformation — apparently, self-driving electric vehicles.

To make order-of-magnitude — rather than incremental — improvements in transportation, we need to build alternatives that are superior to the status quo in every way.

That’s why at Cruise, it is our mission to improve safety by removing the human driver, reduce emissions by being all-electric, and reduce congestion through making shared rides more compelling by providing an awesome experience at a radically lower cost. Only then will we truly move beyond the car to the transportation system that we deserve — one that is safer, more affordable, and better for us, for our cities, and for our planet.

Electrek’s Take

Ammann’s post, Mary Barra’s push for self-driving Bolts, and unveilings (canceled or not) at CES and in San Francisco can’t be a coincidence. It looks like GM and Cruise are planning to make a push for electric, self-driving cars.

Much of the limelight in 2019 was on pure EVs. The other big piece of the automotive future — autonomy — has been relatively quiet years after high-profile AV accidents. But strap yourself in for more self-driving news in 2020. It’s coming, and GM apparently wants to be a major player.

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