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Navigating the Future of Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

A General Motors executive discusses what's on the horizon for the company in the development of electric and autonomous vehicles.

As executive director of the Global Connected Customer Experience in the Global Public Policy organization for General Motors, Harry Lightsey is responsible for handling all of the newer technologies coming into vehicles, including connectivity, autonomous or self-driving vehicles, cybersecurity and data privacy.

Lightsey, who spent 25 years of his career in the telecom industry at BellSouth and AT&T one year before the breakup of the Bell system (and leaving a year after the introduction of the iPhone), spoke with Government Technology's FutureStructure about what's on the horizon in when it comes to transportation.

This is truly a new era for car manufacturers. What is your role at GM and what is its overarching strategy for navigating this new territory? 

If you think about my years in telecom, it was a pretty dramatic period of change for that industry; from 100 percent landline monopoly telephones to the iPhone. But I truly believe that the next 25 years in the automobile industry are going to be as transformative, or more so, than the 25 years we just had in telecom. 

I think you're having four or five major revolutionary trends all come together at one point in time. If you look at these major trends, any one of them, could be classified as transformative, but the fact that they're all happening at the same time is what really makes this industry ripe for disruption and rapid transformational change.  

What’s on the horizon for GM in the transformative areas of electric vehicles, driverless cars, car-sharing, etc. 

I know you are very familiar with the Chevy Volt story, but back in 2011 when it launched it was a transformative car, and frankly, still is. This year, just within the last couple of months, we started selling our Bolt, which has an EPA rated range of 238 miles per charge and a cost with all of the credits less than $30,000. The cost of the batteries is going down, the range is going up. Our studies are showing that when you get above about 170 miles or so, range anxiety in the public goes down substantially.  

We've announced that the first autonomous vehicle platform that we will be rolling out is based on the Bolt, Also, we'll be deploying it in ride-sharing fleets in urban centers. We see this as very complimentary technology-wise. 

It wouldn't be a bad thing for us if people take a ride share ride in a Bolt and say, "Wow, this is a really nice vehicle. I think when I go into purchase my next vehicle, I'm going consider this." There are multiple good reasons and synergies to have the Bolt as our self-driving, ride-sharing vehicle. 

I've seen reports that say autonomous vehicles could reduce car ownership by a huge margin. When you think of GM and the other car manufacturers, the business model has been built on the tradition of individual car ownership. How is GM looking at this traditional model and how this technology is going to affect it? 

Obviously the next major trend is ride sharing and car sharing where these models are no longer based on a single human being owning their own vehicle. We think, particularly in urban centers, that model makes a lot of sense. We've got a subsidiary we created one year ago, called Maven, that is now in 16 cities in the U.S. providing car-sharing services. We have a partnership with Lyft, who is a large provider of ride sharing. This is something that we are very interested in. We see our business as being in the mobility business, helping people get from Point A to Point B. As other models come out and as they show that they have promise, we certainly want to be involved in them. 

We continue to believe that for a long time to come, the predominant model is going to still be individual ownership of vehicles. As other models come to bear, we certainly want to be part of that future as well. 

How do you see the regulatory environment? We have local versus state versus federal authorities already engaged in all of this. How do you thank that should be shaped?  

I think the key is going to be providing room for folks to be innovative and to try new things. At the same time, a vehicle is a product that is so strongly tied to safety that we can't just ignore that. Safety has to be at the top of everybody's list in terms of how this change occurs. Very dramatically different maybe, from some other industry where people's safety is not a critical consideration.  

I think that our approach will be to say that we think that right now the business model, and the regulatory model, that makes the most sense is to allow for these vehicles to be deployed in ride-sharing fleets in urban centers. We think that would give the public the opportunity to experience the technology and determine that the technology is safe without having to go out and actually purchase it. Frankly, right now, the technology is incredibly expensive.  

With a human-driven vehicle, the human being is the ultimate fall-back safety system. When you take the human driver out of the vehicle, you have to design the software so if there is a critical failure, the software can still deliver the occupants of the vehicle to a safe stop.

The sensor systems on the vehicle must have multiple redundancies, so that if one sensor fails, or even a sensor system fails, there are redundancies that allow the vehicle to know where it is and to navigate.  

Our engineers have told me that it's a lot more like designing an airplane than it is like designing a traditional car.  

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) published a report on what to anticipate for the inevitable interaction of autonomous vehicles and human drivers. What’s GM’s perspective on this and what state and local governments should be doing to be proactive on this issue?

We agree with the NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] statements and the federal law of automated vehicle policy guidance. They view the vehicle itself and the systems that are on the vehicle as pretty much within their jurisdiction under the federal safety act, and we agree with that. We look to work with NHTSA and the federal authorities with regard to the actual systems and performance of the systems that are on the vehicle. 

On the other hand, we think that the states have a very important role to play. They have traditionally had the role of determining who is allowed to drive vehicles on their roads and highways. What the rules of the road are on their roads and highways, what are the rules in regard to liability or insurance? Under what types of conditions are they going to allow autonomous vehicles to be on their roads and highways?  

At the city level, if you go with the idea of doing limited and controlled deployments, what part of the city will these vehicles be functioning in? What kind of traffic rules do you want them to obey? Do you want them on residential roads? Or not on residential roads? How do you want to deal with law enforcement? All of those are considerations that need to be worked out.

In short, limited control deployments, in full cooperation with the local authorities and the state authorities and the federal authorities. We think all of the levels of government have a role to play here, and we're willing to engage with them.