Weekly Brief: GM doubles self-driving car fleet as it targets robotaxi service

Forget about the Uber-Waymo drama, GM may be the company to beat when it comes to driverless cabs. Andrew Tolve reports.

General Motors is aggressively growing the size of its fleet of self-driving cars in California in preparation for a nationwide robotaxi service. In the past 12 weeks, GM revealed that its self-driving car division, Cruise Automation, has more than doubled its fleet of autonomous vehicles from roughly 30 to 100. That’s significant because the more cars you get on the road, the more data you can collect and the more real-world experiences you can aggregate, which in turn allows you to fine-tune your algorithms and make your self-driving cars smarter, safer and ultimately more viable for mainstream deployment.

By comparison, as of February 2017 Ford had only two test vehicles in California. Waymo hasn’t published the size of its fleet in California for a while but it was 73 back in 2016, while Tesla was at eight. GM’s deployment thus makes it a frontrunner along with Waymo in terms of cars on the ground and, given the carmaker’s advantage when it comes to actually building and selling cars, it’s perhaps the most likely candidate to claim first-to-market advantage in the robotaxi industry. Cruise Automation already has a pilot underway in San Francisco (currently for employees only) and GM stocks have surged 17% in the past month in anticipation of publicly launching a robotaxi service perhaps as soon as 2018.

In other news, Ford pledged that 100% of its new US vehicles will be built with connectivity by 2019. The company has similarly aggressive plans for China and other markets, because 90% of Ford’s new global vehicles will feature connectivity by 2020. Ford was fuzzy on what exactly “connectivity” means but on-board 4G LTE is a safe bet along with the smartphone pairing system SYNC Connect.

BMW is integrating Amazon’s voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa into all BMW and MINI models from mid-2018. Alexa will work irrespective of whether drivers have smartphones in their pockets and will enable them to play music, find local listings for movies, place online orders and inquire about weather – all by voice command in their vehicles.

The vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of completely removing humans from cars, according to a new study from the Pew Research Centre. The study found that 87% of Americans think there should be a human on hand to take control of a car during an emergency, while 85% of Americans are in favour of limiting machines to performing primarily those jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans.

The US Senatemeanwhile is on the cusp of passing sweeping legislation that largely ignores these sentiments and concerns.  The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a self-driving car bill last week that would make it far easier for carmakers and tech companies to deploy self-driving cars without steering wheels or gas pedals and would allow them to test as many as 100,000 test vehicles on US roads each year. The bill is expected to pass with broad bipartisan support.

Daimler Mobility Services expanded its push into ridesharing with the acquisition of flinc whichmatches drivers and passengers for ridesharing in real-time using desktop, smartphone and navigation technology. Its route matching algorithm finds riders anywhere along the route of the driver and calculates detour and price; users can choose whether they want to be matched only with direct contacts, peer groups or with anyone in the network. The company will continue to operate independently.

Finally, self-driving car start-up Voyage says that it’s found the ideal place to test its vehicles: a retirement community. Voyage is piloting a modified Ford Fusion at the Villages Golf and Country Club in San Jose, California, where the roads are controlled to outside traffic and the max speed limit is 25. There’s still the unpredictability of senile pedestrians and golf carts, lest the self-driving software get too bored.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.

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