Weekly Brief: General Motors Latest to Slam Brakes on Driverless Tech

How starry-eyed we were 18 months ago?

Waymo stood on the doorstep of launching its robo-taxi service and General Motors’ Cruise announced that it was on the precipice of a driverless taxi service that would “change the world.” Not 50 years from now. Not a decade in the future. No, GM Cruise would do this by 2019 and, by and large, we believed them!

How times have changed. Twenty-nineteen is no longer the future. It is today, already halfway into the history books and the driverless car revolution is… let’s just say not so revolutionary. It’s more like an ongoing exercise in delays and deflection. Last week GM Cruise joined the crowd when it announced that its self-imposed 2019 deadline would not be met. Furthermore, it failed to offer a new deadline in its place.

Dan Ammann, GM Cruise’s CEO, dropped this bombshell in a puff of obfuscation. He wrote in a blog post: “In order to reach the level of performance and safety validation required to deploy a fully driverless service in San Francisco, we will be significantly increasing our testing and validation miles over the balance of this year, which has the effect of carrying the timing of fully driverless deployment beyond the end of the year.”

To be fair, GM Cruise is not the only one. Back in April of this year Ford reneged on its promise to mass produce a self-driving car by 2021. By way of explanation, Ford CEO Jim Hackett could only offer that his company had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles”. He, too, did not say when Ford would deploy a self-driving car to market. As for Waymo, its robo-taxi service is technically operational, if you’re willing to include a small service that is located in a suburb of a second-tier city and which is only open to a tiny group of pre-registered users, under the umbrella of “operational”. Most would call it a pilot. Potato, pot-ah-to. A revolution it is not.

To be clear, the fact that tech companies and carmakers are moving slowly here is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s a good thing, not to mention essential in a world where one hit pedestrian could: a) take someone’s life and; b) derail a decade’s worth of research, development, pilots and partnerships. Just ask Uber about that one, after one of its test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018. Its autonomous vehicle division still hasn’t recovered from the setback. Patience, practice and safety are thus paramount, for everyone’s well-being.

That’s what Ammann says GM Cruise is focused on in San Francisco. Over the coming year it plans to increase its street presence while it ramps up testing and validation. It also plans to build out electric vehicle charging infrastructure throughout the city so that the city can handle a fleet of all-electric robo-taxis when they arrive in mass.

This all sounds very sensible. Indeed, that’s what we seem to have transitioned to – a time of common sensible. The risk of winning the robo-taxi race is that you could lose it all in spectacular fashion. Better to stay in the pack, wait for federal and state regulation, continue to increase education and exposure and master your own technology. The revolution will be here soon enough, once we’ve learned to stop waiting for it.


One comment

  1. Avatar Indroneel Mukerji 29th July 2019 @ 5:09 pm

    The days of the high adrenaline risk-taking enterprise is no more. Caution, verification, marking time with governments and legislation, ensuring the brand image does not have a catastrophic fail, is the order of the day. The brave new world of autonomous vehicles is not so brave after all. Commercial freight will be the first to go autonomous; in the US, PRC, Canada and some countries in the EU. India might well be the last to get on board.

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