Transportation

GM Seeks Federal Permission to Deploy Robo-Taxis Without Steering Wheels in 2019, but State Hurdles Remain

GM's subsidiary, Cruise Automation, has asked federal regulators to approve an AV car with no steering wheel, brake pedals, accelerator or "other unnecessary controls" to be used as robot taxis in 2019.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / January 12, 2018

(TNS) — General Motors and its San Francisco subsidiary Cruise said Thursday that they have asked federal regulators to approve an autonomous car with no steering wheel, brake pedals, accelerator “or other unnecessary controls.”

GM plans to mass-produce the cars for use as robot taxis in 2019. The new vehicle is based on the all-electric Chevy Bolt structure.

“If you look back 20 years from now at the history of autonomous vehicle deployment, it is a major milestone to create a production vehicle with no manual controls, especially one built in a high-volume production line,” said Cruise co-founder and CEO Kyle Vogt in a conference call with reporters.

The car is Cruise’s fourth-generation autonomous vehicle, coming only three months after its third-generation model. The San Francisco startup, which GM bought two years ago and has made the center of its self-driving efforts, originally worked to retrofit existing cars to be autonomous.

GM plans to build up to 2,500 of the robot cars a year at its Orion, Mich., assembly plant, where 1,000 people work in an area the size of 75 football fields.

The automaker said it petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 16 specific exceptions to meet current federal safety standards with workarounds that accommodate the cars’ unique nature. For instance, cars now are required to have an air bag in the steering wheel. Since the robot car would not have a steering wheel, it would instead have an air bag in the left front seat — now a passenger seat — that mirrors the one in the right front seat.

“Once we get that approval from the federal government, we will be cleared to deploy these vehicles,” said Paul Hemmersbaugh, GM chief counsel and public policy director.

However, GM would still need to get permission from most states to operate cars with no human drivers.

“Vestigial regulations in the majority of states (require) things like a driver who is 16 years of age,” Hemmersbaugh said. For self-driving cars, these are “unintentional but necessary” barriers, he said, and the company is pushing for a change in the laws.

Only seven states currently allow cars without drivers (though in practice there are virtually none, because the technology is still being perfected). California is not one of them, although it has draft regulations pending that would permit driverless cars. While the state is a hub for robot-car development, with more than 40 companies testing vehicles, having a safety driver behind the wheel is currently required.

GM acknowledged that winning public acceptance could be a significant hurdle. A poll released this week, as Congress hashes out legislation for autonomous vehicles, found that many Americans are concerned about sharing the road with robot cars and want stricter federal oversight.

Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, the group behind the poll, said that changes are “needed to address significant safety shortcomings and serious public concerns revealed in the poll” before a final bill is passed. The group includes consumer advocates as well as a former administrator of the highway traffic safety agency.

The robot taxis would have features such as the ability to open and close their own doors, a button that riders could press to speak with customer support or request an emergency stop, and touch screens. GM’s OnStar remote service would be available in the event of a crash.

GM declined to say where it would offer robot taxi service and how many cars might be involved. Responding to questions about when and where the vehicles would be tested, Vogt had a one-word answer: “2019.”

©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.