The company is saying the right things, but can it walk the walk? The automaker has plenty of ground to make up if it’s going to deliver a winning self-driving vehicle. It’s also unclear if GM can compete in the ride-sharing space, which already includes established players, such as Uber, Lyft and Daimler’s car2go.
GM said that late in 2016 it will have Chevrolet Volts driving autonomously around its tech campus. But GM is not even certain that these vehicles will be fully self-driving. A GM spokeswoman said the vehicles will be driving at low speeds, and the level of autonomy has yet to be finalized.
While GM notes its history in “connectivity leadership,” it now finds itself trailing in the race to deliver a fully self-driving vehicle — the flavor of autonomy with the power to disrupt our current paradigm. Google has 48 self-driving vehicles testing on public roads in two states. Its cars have covered 1.2 million miles in autonomous mode, and are now averaging over 10,000 miles a week. That rate will likely accelerate by the time GM’s autonomous Volts — which may not even be fully self-driving — are circling the private roads at its Warren, Mich. technical center.
Many observers expect the future of transportation to be a shift toward shared autonomy, in which fully self-driving vehicles ferry us from place to place. You wouldn’t need to own a car that would sit idle 96 percent of the time. An autonomous car service could keep its vehicles running constantly, increasingly their profitability. (Such an arrangement may be essential for self-driving vehicles, as the required sensors and software could increase the cost of the vehicles to a point that’s unappealing for consumers looking to buy.)
Uber, which has become a behemoth by injecting digital technology into the old-fashioned cab industry, appears well aware of what’s looming. Autonomous vehicles could upend its current business. So the company has hired people in droves from Carnegie Mellon’s respected robotics department to develop self-driving technology. Software helped Uber shake up the cab industry, now it’ll need more software to make sure it doesn’t get disrupted.
Still, despite the challenges automakers face from software-savvy upstarts, we’re in the early days of the autonomous vehicle wars.
“We’re coming to the age where we see the emergence of the software-defined vehicle,” said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at Gartner. “There is still an opportunity out there for multiple companies to be disruptive, not just tech companies. It is definitely still an opportunity for automotive companies.”
GM’s venture capital arm has invested in GeoDigital, a geospatial data company. For fully-self driving vehicles to work, good maps will be essential.
GeoDigital has its roots in tracking vegetation growth for utility companies. It saw that these abilities could translate to making maps for autonomous vehicles. CEO Chris Warrington said the company’s revenue has grown 40 percent year over year, with much of the gains coming in autonomous driving.
If they want to be disruptors, GM and other established automakers will have to wrangle the full suite of self-driving technologies. The tech companies are new to cars, but old hands at the increasingly important skill — software.
While Google, for example, has expressed an interest in partnering with automakers to bring its technology to market, the arrangement may not be ideal for GM. Automakers would essentially be the hardware providers, and Google the software provider. Generally hardware becomes a commodity with narrow profit margins, while the differentiation and larger profits go to the winning software provider.
It’s worth noting that today most consumers don’t see their cars as commodities, they differentiate between brands and have allegiances to Ford or Chevy or Honda. But if the future is shared autonomy, where consumers press a button on their phone to get from A to B — and don’t own their vehicles — car brands will matter less. (Ask anyone using Uber if they care what brand of car picks them up.) So for GM to be a true disruptor, software is where it must excel.
There’s a lot of competition left to play out in this space. Whatever happens, it’ll be exciting to watch unfold.