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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Driverless cars: GM to ditch steering wheel and pedals to put robot in charge

The car manufacturer will test its new autonomous electric sedan in San Francisco in 2019

GM's planned Cruise AV driverless car features no steering wheel or pedals. General Motors/Handout via Reuters
GM's planned Cruise AV driverless car features no steering wheel or pedals. General Motors/Handout via Reuters

Next year, General Motors will no longer need an engineer in the front seat babysitting the robot brain that controls its self-driving Chevrolet Bolt. The steering wheel and pedals will be gone, giving total control to the machine.

When GM starts testing its autonomous electric sedan in San Francisco ride-sharing fleets, it’ll likely be the first production-ready car on the roads without the tools to let a human assume control. The announcement on Friday is the first sign from a major car maker that engineers have enough confidence in self-driving cars to let them truly go it alone.

“What’s really special about this is if you look back 20 years from now, it’s the first car without a steering wheel and pedals,” said Kyle Vogt, chief executive of Cruise Automation, the San Francisco-based unit developing the software for GM’s self-driving cars.

GM will run the cars in a test batch for a ride-sharing programme starting in 2019, and they won’t be without a safety net. The vehicles will travel on a fixed route controlled by their mapping system, and the Detroit-based automaker is applying for federal permission to run the test cars without a driver.

Mr Vogt said the self-driving Bolt has redundant systems built in to back up the driving systems. If there’s a problem, the car will slow down, pull over to the roadside and stop.

GM’s experiment will be a significant step forward for self-driving cars. The automaker and companies including Alphabet’s Waymo unit and startup Zoox have demonstrated cars that can drive with so-called Level 4 autonomy. As defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, cars at that level can drive without human intervention but only in certain geographic areas.

GM, Zoox, Waymo and others have all tested Level 4 cars, but usually with a driver still at the wheel to take over in case the system doesn’t work properly. Removing the driver will really test the technology, said Gill Pratt, chief executive of Toyota Motor’s Toyota Research Institute.

“If you’re testing Level 4 technology with a driver, you’re not really testing it at level 4,” he said in an interview at the CES technology show in Las Vegas this week.

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Read more:

Las Vegas accident raises questions about driverless vehicles

Waymo announces fully self-driving cars on public roads

New driverless systems to be trialled in Dubai from next year

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Waymo and its precursor, Google’s self-driving car project, have tested autonomous vehicles in urban areas for years. Its Firefly prototype had no steering wheel or pedals and in 2015 took a blind man for what the company called “the world’s first truly self-driving trip".

Late last year, Waymo started an autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix using a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan. More recently, it dispensed with safety drivers, though the vans still has steering wheels.

GM argues Waymo’s tests are mostly in the greater Phoenix area, where traffic situations are less complex than what it’s encountered in San Francisco. A Waymo spokesman said in November that the company has tested its cars in 20 different cities.

GM, which also tests in Phoenix, said in a safety report slated to be released on Friday that for every 1,000 miles of autonomous driving, its car needed to make 1,462 left turns in San Francisco, compared with 919 in the Phoenix suburbs. Cruise’s car had to navigate construction blocking the lane more than 18 times as often in the Bay Area and had to deal with emergency vehicles 270 times, versus six Phoenix encounters, according to the report.

GM’s autonomous test cars were in 22 accidents in California last year, according to data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. All other companies combined had five accidents. In a November interview, GM President Dan Ammann attributed the accidents to testing in a dense urban environment and noted the company’s cars weren’t at fault in any of the incidents.

GM said it’s filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to test the cars. Current US auto-safety standards contain several provisions that act as de facto requirements that vehicles have driver controls such as a steering wheel and foot pedals.

Manufacturers can get around those standards by petitioning NHTSA for exemptions, provided they demonstrate that the exempted vehicle will be at least as safe as a conventional one. Current law caps the number of exempted vehicles at 2,500 vehicles per manufacturer per year.

If NHTSA approves the petition, GM will still have to get permission from states to run the steering wheel-free cars. Currently, only seven states allow the technology to be tested without a safety driver, said Paul Hemmersbaugh, GM’s chief counsel and policy director for transportation as a service.