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GM to unveil fully driverless vehicle — just don't call it a car

The vehicle will be taller but not much longer than GM's Bolt electric vehicle. Significantly, it will have no steering wheel or other manual controls.
Mary Barra discusses the future of the auto industry and the state of the U.S. economy in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.
General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra discussed the future of the auto industry and the state of the economy in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.Yuri Gripas / Reuters file

Cruise, a San Francisco startup largely controlled by General Motors, is expected to unveil a fully driverless vehicle Tuesday evening at an event in San Francisco.

The company, one of the most active players in the development of self-driving vehicles, has laid out plans to launch an autonomous ride-sharing service — although the launch was postponed last year.

The startup had been working on modified versions of GM's Chevrolet Bolt EV. But it has revised those plans, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal automotive analyst for Navigant Research. Instead, he expects to see "a purpose-built vehicle ... specifically designed for mobility services, more like a shuttle and better suited for high-volume applications."

Officials with Cruise and GM have been mum about Tuesday's unveiling, but Ray Wert, a spokesman for Cruise, said the product "is definitely not a car," Bloomberg reported.

Abuelsamid and several others with knowledge of the program said the vehicle was jointly developed over the past year by GM and Honda, another major investor in Cruise. It will be taller but not much longer than the compact Bolt battery electric vehicle. Significantly, it will have no steering wheel or other manual controls.

GM applied to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, in 2018 for a waiver allowing the operation of such a vehicle. The NHTSA did not immediately respond, however, and GM Chief Executive Mary Barra met with government officials late last year to push them to move on the request.

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The final vehicle is expected to share key electric drive components with the Bolt and to use a modified version of its platform. But Abuelsamid said the taller, more bus-like "form factor" will make it easier to operate in an urban environment as part of the ride-sharing operation Cruise wants to launch.

Such a vehicle, in whatever form it takes, could provide a significant advantage, especially for a ride-sharing service. Eliminating the driver would substantially cut operating costs, translating into lower prices for customers. Some experts believe that could eventually lead many consumers to abandon their personal vehicles or at least reduce the number of cars in their households.

There is plenty of competition, however. The ride-sharing giant Uber is also working on developing autonomous vehicles, as is the Google spinoff Waymo, which launched a ride-sharing venture with Lyft in the Phoenix area in 2018.

But, at least for now, Waymo's services use what is known as "Level 3 autonomy," because its vehicles still need human backup operators who can take control in emergencies.

The Cruise vehicles are expected to step up to what the industry calls "Level 4 autonomy." The new vehicles will be "geo-fenced," meaning they will be limited to operating in specifically mapped areas and in relatively good weather. The goal is "Level 5," or vehicles able to operate anywhere, even off-road. But few expect that to come to fruition until late in the decade — at the earliest.

Founded in 2013 as Cruise Automation, the company has raised $7.25 billion to fund autonomous vehicle development, with GM, Honda, Japan's SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price Associates among its primary investors. Former GM President Dan Ammann was named its chief executive in November 2018.