(TNS) -- General Motors’ purchase last year of San Francisco self-driving startup Cruise Automation appears to be bearing fruit.
The two companies on Monday unveiled a jointly developed self-driving car that — unlike the autonomous prototypes already being tested on California roads — is fully designed for large-scale production.
Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s co-founder and CEO, referred to the vehicle as “the world’s first mass-producible self-driving car.”
“This is the big jump it takes to go from a prototype vehicle you can demo at (a consumer electronics conference) to something you can build at a massive scale,” Vogt said.
Built at GM’s Orion Assembly plant in Michigan, the car incorporates all of the sensors, computing power and redundant systems needed to operate completely without a driver, even though the software to do so remains under development.
And while production will remain limited at first — with just 50 made so far — GM insists the car as designed could be built en masse in the company’s existing factories.
“It’s about making changes on the car so we can actually build that on the line in Orion,” said Doug Parks, GM’s vice president for autonomous technology and vehicle execution. “It’s not just adding parts to cars, it’s not just building a base car — it’s the integration of all those things together.”
Other companies developing autonomous cars might take issue with Cruise’s “world’s first” description.
Last fall, Tesla started equipping all of its electric cars with the sensor suite needed to drive themselves, although Tesla uses a different combination of sensors than does Cruise. Tesla even advertises on its website that activating full self-driving capability on the newly introduced Model 3 sedan will cost $3,000 — when the company eventually perfects the software.
Chrysler, meanwhile, is building an autonomous version of its Pacifica minivan for Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Chrysler produced an initial batch of 100 modified minivans last year and is in the midst of delivering 500 more to Waymo.
The new Cruise and GM cars, based on the electric Chevy Bolt but with many new or modified parts, will hit the streets first in San Francisco.
Cruise employees will be able to hail them for rides to work, starting in several weeks. Cruise and GM envision selling the cars to other ride services rather than directly to consumers, but on Monday they offered no timetable for such sales. Cruise has a partnership with Lyft — which plans to offer rides in self-driving cars to San Francisco passengers soon — while GM has one with Uber.
GM purchased Cruise in May 2016 for $581 million (although the automaker cautioned the price would rise over time). The deal was designed to pair the strengths of Silicon Valley and Detroit.
Cruise, which operates out of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, focused on perfecting autonomous driving technology and had little interest in building the cars themselves. General Motors, in contrast, has more than a century of production experience, building more than 9 million vehicles per year.
After the deal was announced, Cruise began using Chevy Bolts as robotic guinea pigs, bolting sensors to the cars and sending them on test drives throughout San Francisco. GM then started building Bolts with more of the self-driving hardware incorporated into the cars — producing what the two companies now call their “gen two” vehicles.
The new vehicles, “gen three,” contain a key feature not found in gen two. Redundancy has been built into every vital system, so that if one piece of equipment fails, the car can continue driving itself without a human taking control.
As a result, while the car is still based on the Bolt, 40 percent of the parts are different.
“The end result is something that looks more like an airliner or a spacecraft in terms of redundancy,” Vogt said.
He cautioned, however, that the software enabling cars to safely drive themselves in all circumstances — referred to as level 5 autonomy — will take more time.
Cruise’s cars run daily tests on San Francisco’s streets, but there are still situations — rarely encountered scenarios that engineers call “edge cases” — that the programming hasn’t mastered. Before cars can drive themselves without human backup, they must be able to handle those situations as well. In part for that reason, California regulations require any autonomous car on public streets to have a human behind the wheel, ready to take control if necessary.
“We’ve passed the milestone a long time ago where you can drive from point A to point B in San Francisco without the driver getting involved,” Vogt said. “Getting to the point where you can actually remove the driver is probably a thousand times harder.”
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.