General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said the company plans to be a “disruptor” in the changing auto industry, as it announced what’s believed to be an industry-first fleet of self-driving cars, as well as two U.S. car-sharing programs.
A fleet of autonomous 2017 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids will be made available for employees at its Warren Tech Center. Beginning late next year, they’ll be able to hop into one of the Volts and be shuttled around the campus.
Barra says the company wants to redefine the future of personal mobility, and doing so will transform the company.
“It really demonstrates a different mindset than what you might expect from the auto industry, really a Silicon Valley mindset,” she told investors and analysts Thursday at GM’s Global Business Conference. “We’re going to step things up. We’re going to experiment, we’re going to get customer input, we’re going to do it in a cost-effective way. If it works, we’re going to scale it.”
The automaker plans to use the test fleet of Volts to more quickly develop autonomous vehicles as it moves testing from professional drivers and test tracks into more real-world scenarios.
The move shows the carmaker is moving swiftly to compete with innovators such as Google Inc., which says it has logged more than 1.2 million miles of autonomous vehicle testing. Apple Inc. and Uber also reportedly are developing self-driving cars.
The Volts will interact in the real world with pedestrians, traffic and stop signs. Speeds will be limited to about 25 mph on the campus.
The test fleet will drive and park itself so a passenger could sit back and let the car find its way. But it will be equipped to allow a driver to take over at any time, GM spokesman Dan Flores said.
GM has not announced how many Volts will be in the fleet — or if all employees or just a pilot group will be able to use the cars. “We’re still in the process of working out all the details of the autonomous Volt fleet,” Flores said. “However, we’re not talking hundreds of vehicles here.”
The aim is to quicken deployment of autonomous vehicles, executives said.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for us to accelerate everything around autonomous and safety, and to do it very, very quickly,” said Mark Reuss, head of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.
Employees will be able to use the Volts to travel within the tech center campus, reserving them with a car-sharing app. Inside the Volt, they’ll be able to select a predetermined destination on the center stack.
Strategic partnerships will help launch the vehicles more quickly; the carmaker is in discussions with some potential partners, Reuss said. He said GM has “heightened” its partnership with Mobileye, which develops vision-based systems that help avoid collisions.
“We will be ready when the market demand calls for autonomous vehicles,” he said.
Just how soon that will come is questioned by industry experts, due to regulations, cost, insurance liability and other concerns. Some analysts expect to see fully autonomous cars by 2020; others say it will take at least 10 years.