GM’s Robotaxis Likely To Include Manual Controls

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

can be reached at nickjaynes@gmail.com
  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

can be reached at nickjaynes@gmail.com
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The race is on for which company will be the first to launch a publicly accessible robotaxi-based ride-hailing service. General Motors seems to be on the forefront. But, given recent safety hurdles, its self-driving rideshare vehicles might include manual controls — and maybe even a human safety driver.

  • GM automated vehicles chief said the company is likely to launch its pilot robotaxi program with third-gen automated vehicles that feature manual driving controls.
  • This follows negative public comments following GM’s request to NHTSA that it be allowed to forego certain manual driving controls in its automated vehicles.
  • GM’s robotaxi pilot program was initially scheduled for launch in San Francisco in 2019. It’s not clear if that timeline persists. 

Back in January 2017, GM put in a request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it be exempt from specific Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for its automated vehicle fleet. The standards require all vehicles include certain safety features and manual driving controls, since they assume a human is driving the car.

GM’s fourth-generation autonomous vehicle was designed without a steering wheel and pedals. So, the General hoped it could forego these requirements and launch its autonomous vehicle ride-hailing pilot program, composed of 2,500 robotaxi, in San Francisco this year.

For whatever reason, NHTSA sat on that request for 14 months before it opened up the floor for public comment. Safety groups resoundingly balked at GM’s request, making it appear unlikely that NHTSA will side in the General’s favor.

So, this week at RBC Capital Markets Future of Mobility Conference in Palo Alto, California, Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous and electric vehicle programs, revealed that the carmaker might go ahead with its ride-hailing pilot plans but run its third-generation automated vehicles, which include manual controls, instead of its previously planned controls-free, fourth-gen cars.

“Until we have exemptions, which we filed a petition for, and/or law changes, we probably wouldn’t go forward with Gen 4,” Parks said. “When we’re ready to deploy, we’ll most likely deploy with the Gen 3 technology.”

Importantly, Parks confirmed that, aside from steering wheel and pedals, the third- and fourth-gen automated vehicles are the same.

The Cruise AV
The Cruise AV is designed to operate safely on its own, with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or other manual controls when it goes on the road in 2019. | Photo: General Motors

Since NHTSA has dragged its proverbial feet on GM’s application for exemption, and given the mostly negative pushback during the public comment period, it is not clear if the carmaker will stick to its previously stated timeframe for the commercial robotaxi pilot program.

CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss have long said that the program was “gated by safety.” So, it’s clear the automaker isn’t trying to prematurely rush the scheme. After all, a disastrous launch of a public robotaxi program could be a giant setback not just for GM but for the industry as a whole.

Regardless of whether the cars feature a steering wheel and pedals or not, the experience will be the same for riders. They’ll call up the car on an app and then command it through touch screens mounted inside the cabin.

Hopefully, if the vehicles don’t have to include a human in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel and pedals are connected to the car by wire rather than manual linkage. I’d hate for a jerky member of the general public to hop in and try to mess with the car’s controls while it is trying to drive, which would undoubtedly happen.

I just pray GM is going to plan for that and install steer- and brake-by-wire systems — the inputs from which can be ignored by the car’s computer when it’s in self-driving mode — as a precaution.


About the Author

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

can be reached at nickjaynes@gmail.com
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