Delayed by the UAW strike, the car will be shown in the first half of the year
General Motors was not able to get an electric vehicle finished in time to show at CES in January, but the vehicle in question will be ready for viewing in the first half of the year, said GM CEO Mary Barra.
The original plan was to show a vehicle at CES, but that was before a lengthy strike during negotiations with the United Automobile Workers union (UAW).
“We had a plan to go to CES and frankly we can’t go to CES without putting our best foot forward and we could not get the models done that we wanted to get done with the strike, frankly,” explained spokesman Tony Cervone. “We had a plan, we worked like hell,” he said, but the automaker was not going to cross picket lines to move concepts out of studios or take dies out of plants to get the vehicle ready. “So we had worked as hard as we could with the infrastructure we had,” Cervone said. But time was not on their side and the automaker did not want to go to CES, which is a huge technology stage, with something that was not ready.
“We want to do it right because we’ve got a very powerful story to tell,” Barra told MotorTrend in an interview.
Barra would not provide the specifics of the vehicle, saying only that it focuses on the two areas where GM is committed for the future: electric vehicles and autonomous technology. “You’ll see us tell that story in different forms.”
The CES car was originally thought to be the latest autonomous vehicle from GM and Cruise, but an invitation from Cruise for an event later in January suggests we will see the new robotaxi then. GM bought Cruise in 2016 and they have been developing a driverless ride-hailing fleet that they had hoped to have on the road by the end of 2019. This suggests the CES car might have been a look at the Cadillac electric crossover in the works with Super Cruise semi-autonomous hands-free highway driving capability.
GM’s work with Cruise on fully self-driving vehicles started with a version of the Chevrolet Bolt with lidar sensors on the roof and evolved into a bespoke, production-ready, fully autonomous car called Cruise AV that is made at the Orion Assembly Plant in Michigan. With each generation it becomes a more advanced dedicated, self-driving electric sedan. The final concept will have no steering wheel or pedals; every seat is a passenger seat. Artificial intelligence and related technology will be the driver. A geo-fenced portion of San Francisco has been the main testbed with additional testing in Phoenix and Michigan. They have also sought permits to test in New York.
It’s expected that the model planned later in January at a Cruise media event in San Francisco will be the latest version of the Cruise AV.
As testing continues, the team realized the deadline to have an operational fleet of robotaxis in place by the end of 2019 was unrealistic.
GM will be gated by safety, Barra said. “I think everyone has realized that AVs are really one of the technical challenges of our generation.” GM’s approach is safety first while also working to understand the customer. “Not only is it a technology race, it’s a trust race and we’re doing a lot in San Francisco where we’re making sure consumers will understand the vehicles, understand the development, understand the technology, and we think that’s very important,” she said. The mindset is to demonstrate that the self-driving vehicle is safer than a human driver.
In terms of new timing, “We see a line of sight but we’re not going to put another date out there,” Barra said, given the significance of the technology to reduce accidents and congestion while helping the environment. “Quarters aren’t as important as getting this technology right so when you roll it out, you gain customer trust and usage.”
She is convinced GM’s carmaking prowess honed over 100 years combined with Cruise’s work on autonomous technology, all under one roof for seamless integration, is an asset the competition does not share. “Having that together, doing deep integration, it’s frictionless how we work together and then having the ability to build vehicles at scale puts us in a unique position,” Barra said. They have changed 40 percent of the components in the vehicle to ensure safety and build in the right backup systems in a vehicle where there is no longer a driver to intervene in the myriad of situations that can arise.
“So I’m very pleased at the progress we’ve made on AVs and we’ll continue to make,” Barra said. Hand in glove is progress on electric vehicles.
“We believe all AVs should be EVs,” Barra said. It is part of a larger commitment to electric vehicles, autonomous or not. General Motors has produced hybrids and plug-in hybrids, but Barra wants to avoid the inherent cost of two powertrains—a combustion engine and electric motor/batteries, in the same vehicle.
The company also believes in the science of global warming and wants quick adoption of EVs as part of the solution. “This is not a two-year problem,” Barra said. “It’s a decade. It’s a generational problem. So the quicker you get to our goal of zero emissions, the better, and EVs get you there faster. So why dedicate a lot of capital and engineering into a segment that doesn’t get you to the end game when we know how to do the end game?”
Barra may not like plug-in hybrids, but she recognizes they are necessary in the transition to electric vehicles, especially in China, to meet emissions regulations. Not only are they just a partial solution, but they are also a business challenge. Customers don’t want pay for the additional hybrid technology. The drop in demand in the U.S. led to the decision to stop producing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid earlier this year. Conversely, GM is working on the next generation of the pure electric Chevy Bolt.
“If you’re a customer-focused company and you’re a company that believes in the science of global warming, why wouldn’t you get to EVs as fast as you can?” Barra asked.