GM and Cruise’s Innovative Leap in Self-Driving Cars — No Steering Wheel or Pedals

By Bruce Harpham Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Self-driving car technology took a giant leap forward this month, thanks to General Motors (GM). In mid-October, GM received permission to test unmanned vehicles in California. The change is notable for several reasons. It shows that autonomous vehicles are entering the mainstream—it is no longer limited to newer technology firms like Tesla.

How General Motors Cruise Operates Differently

For more than a century, cars have changed a lot. Yet, certain features like the steering wheel have never disappeared. If General Motors and Cruise succeed, the steering wheel may disappear. We know this because the company has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a US government agency, for permission to put an unusual type of car on the roads.

Specifically, GM is planning to test a car without a steering wheel or pedals. The request to remove these features is striking because existing automotive regulations specifically require pedals and a steering vehicle. The regulations were created years ago when bureaucrats assumed that cars would always have a human driver.

Origin Is More Than a Self-Driving Vehicle

Origin, Cruise’s first vehicle, has caught attention because it is designed to be a self-driving vehicle. Besides, Cruise is an all-electric vehicle. The vehicle also has a camera on the roof, a key component to its self-driving capability. Concrete details about the company’s technology are limited. An early report indicates that the vehicle’s planned weight is less than 10,000 pounds. However, an early prototype and announcement reveal an essential fact about Cruise’s long term business model.

How Cruise and GM Plan to Compete With Uber and Lyft

Selling vehicles directly to the public may not be Cruise’s primary strategy. In 2019, Cruise affirmed that it would offer a ride-hailing service. This offering would put it in direct competition with Uber and Lyft. That competition might be a problem for Uber, which has yet to achieve profitability. In 2019, Uber reported a loss of more than $8 billion.  While the idea of a robo-taxi is intriguing, it is unclear whether passengers will embrace the concept.

Government Approval on GM’s Self-Driving Car Technology

Changing US regulations, especially those that directly impact public safety, is not a fast process. An exemption or rewrite of car safety regulations that question a long-standing premise of cars — driver controls — are likely to take even longer. Fortunately, Cruise and General Motors do not have to pin all their hopes on federal regulators.

Over Thirty Self-Driving Cars Are on California’s Roads

California, a state known for a progressive car regulation approach, offers more support to self-driving cars. According to a 2019 report, there are thirty-six companies currently testing vehicles in the state. Cruise has tested over two hundred vehicles in the San Francisco region already.

California’s embrace of self-driving cars has not been without controversy or surprise. Unlike Cruise’s approach, most existing self-driving cars include driver controls. Designers put these controls in place to meet legal requirements and cover situations where the self-driving system makes mistakes. Unfortunately, most autonomous vehicle accidents in California occurred when the human driver was in control. As a result, it is unclear whether the self-driving system can be held accountable for these problems.

Cruise’s Number One Competitor in California

While Cruise vehicles have a lead in California vehicle testing, there is sustained competition. Waymo, owned by Alphabet (i.e., the parent company of Google), had more than one hundred vehicles on California roads in 2018 and 2019. Google’s self-driving car technology dates back to early experiments in 2010. As of 2017, industry reports estimate that Google has poured over $1 billion into self-driving car technology.

General Motors is Getting Into Self-Driving Cars via Cruise

Technically speaking, General Motors is not seeking approval from the government directly. Instead, General Motors owns a majority stake in Cruise. In 2019, Cruise raised over $1 billion from investors to develop its technology. Cruise is almost entirely focused on research and development. As of 2019, the company planned to hire approximately 1,000 engineers.

General Motors and Other Carmakers—Autonomous Vehicles

General Motors isn’t the only major car company invested in self-driving car technology. Ford Motor Company’s primary focus on self-driving vehicles is focused on the Argo AI startup. In 2017, Ford announced it would invest $1 billion over five years into Argo.

In 2021, Ford and Argo plan to release a vehicle similar to the GM Cruise. This future vehicle would lack a steering wheel or pedals. Furthermore, the new Ford car is not planned for direct sale to consumers. Instead, the company plans to sell the vehicle to commercial fleets. Ford’s 2021 vehicle is a project nearly twenty years in the making. In 2005, Ford participated in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) self-driving car challenge.

About the Author


Headshot for author Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham is an author and marketing consultant based in Canada. His first book "Project Managers At Work" shared real-world success lessons from NASA, Google, and other organizations. His articles have been published in CIO.com, InfoWorld, Canadian Business, and other organizations. Visit BruceHarpham.com for articles, interviews with tech leaders, and updates on future books.

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