GM Has Entered the Race for Self-Driving Cars

And their placement may surprise you


Something that perhaps isn’t discussed enough when talking about the advent of autonomous vehicles is driving itself. Specifically, the fact that many people love to drive. Getting behind the wheel on the open road, the wind in our hair with a full tank of gas is a classic image for many of us. But with more and more of the big automakers (like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes) and technology companies (like Google and Apple) pouring their time, energy, and money into driverless technology, it’s looking more and more like eventually drivers will be phased out.

The reasoning behind the push for autonomous vehicles is sound: 94 percent of traffic crashes result from driver error, and Keith Naughton at Bloomberg Business offers additional benefits, such as fuel savings, congestion reduction, and the reduced need for parking square footage.

But now, with news that the classic American carmaker General Motors has entered the race for self-driving cars, perhaps Americans will begin to form a new car-related identity—one with room for autonomous vehicles.

Why GM’s Driverless Tech is Such a Big Deal

Speaking with Naughton, from Bloomberg Business, GM’s product development chief, Mark Reuss, said, “I like to drive cars,” as he demonstrated the company’s latest autonomous features. A rather incongruous thought for someone tasked with developing driverless technology for one of the largest automakers in North America, but perhaps even more incongruous is the very fact that GM is entering the autonomous arms race at all.

GM is, of course, a solid and enduring American symbol and we—perhaps wrongly—tend to expect classic and traditional companies to keep things, well, classic and traditional. Not to denigrate GM, but the last time the quintessentially American carmaker, as Naughton pointed out, introduced an ambitious technological advancement was when they introduced the automatic transmission (in the 1950s).

This is all to say: GM investing in driverless technology is a big deal. It signals GM’s commitment to staying relevant and competitive in an increasingly autonomous-leaning market and we, for one, are excited to see what they come up with.

GM's investment in Super Cruise signals a commitment to stay relevant in the changing auto market.

Details about GM’s New Tech: Super Cruise

General Motors isn’t planning for a fully autonomous vehicle yet—for now, their plan seems to be incremental changes that increase driver safety and build the company’s technology base. Naughton reports that Super Cruise will pair adaptive cruise control with lane-centering technology which will allow drivers to step back from the controls while on highways (and highways only, for now). Super Cruise will first be available in the CT6, Cadillac’s flagship sedan, in 2017. Naughton describes the system (which is still being tested and improved, in GM’s Michigan test track):

“The technology isn’t easy to spot. Hidden behind the car’s rearview mirror is a camera that identifies lane lines and objects ahead. Two short-range radars are embedded in the front bumper, and one long-range radar peeks out from behind the grille. The camera’s primary function is to keep the car centered in its lane; the radars work mostly to detect approaching objects and keep the car a set distance from traffic. All that data feeds into two computers locked in aluminum boxes tucked beneath the spare tire in the trunk. The computers analyze the sensor inputs in real time and tell the car when to accelerate, brake, and turn.”

Super Cruise still has a way to go before it’s market-ready, but GM appears confident in their 2017 release date.

ct6 cadillac 2016
GM’s ct6 Cadillac.

Can GM Compete?

Technology moves quickly, and many automakers have already lapped GM before they even are out of the gate: Naughton notes, “Elon Musk [of Tesla] has just begun offering autopilot on his Tesla Model S. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Volvo have similar hands-free driving systems in the works. Then there’s Google, which wants to skip the half-measures and do a full-on moonshot: totally autonomous cars that, regulators willing, won’t even come with a steering wheel or gas pedal.”

Interestingly, car manufacturing isn’t solely in the hands of traditional automakers any more—as cars become more and more technologically reliant, tech companies have begun to capture a greater share of the market, and most of the tech giants—like Apple and Google have already invested large portions of their revenue into car manufacturing ventures. A rivalry has therefore developed between the old guard and the new, and the jabs aren’t subtle: “It’s like saying, ‘If I work really hard at jumping, one day I’ll just be able to fly,’ ”—Bloomberg Business quotes the technical director of Google’s car program, Chris Urmson, speaking at a talk this past May about his lack of confidence in the incremental approach to driverless vehicles; the very approach GM is introducing.

While GM’s Reuss objects to Urmson’s dismissal, he admits that if GM sticks to business-as-usual, the company would be done; they would be unable to compete with the changing nature of transportation vehicles.

Autonomous Vehicles or Bust

So will GM’s incremental advancement be enough to keep them in the potentially billion-dollar autonomous vehicle race? That remains to be seen, of course, but GM’s latest move demonstrates that traditional carmakers are still very much in the game.

And for those who love driving? You can tell your dad, at least, that he’s probably safe from a world of compulsory autonomous driving. Based on Naughton’s timeline of the past and future of driverless vehicles, we likely won’t see restrictions on human-driven vehicles until 2045, and Naughton, for one, doesn’t see autonomous vehicles becoming mandatory until 2060.