General Motors bets €4.3bn on the long road to safe driverless taxi

General Motors bets €4.3bn on the long road to safe driverless taxi

By Heather Somerville

It’s one of the biggest bets going in the world of cars: Since May, General Motors (GM) and its Cruise self-driving car unit have landed €4.35bn in investment commitments from Japan’s SoftBank and Honda Motor to develop a robot taxi service that could safely navigate the city streets of San Francisco by the end of next year - putting it ahead Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving car unit, Uber and Lyft.

Those expectations are now hitting speed bumps, according to interviews with eight current and former GM and Cruise employees and executives, along with nine autonomous vehicle technology experts familiar with Cruise. These sources say

that

some unexpected technical challenges — including the difficulty that Cruise cars have identifying whether objects are in motion — mean putting GM’s driverless cars on the road in a large scale way in 2019 is looking highly unlikely. “Nothing is on schedule,” said one GM source, referring to certain mileage targets and other milestones the company has already missed.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told Reuters last month the service will offer passengers “a primary form of transportation” most anywhere they want to go and compete with Uber and Lyft. Using driverless cars to carry fare-paying customers would allow Cruise to recover investments in expensive technology and turn a profit more rapidly than trying to sell self-driving cars to the few individual customers who could afford them.

In addition, operating self-driving cars in a taxi service would allow Cruise and GM to tailor the service to the limitations of the technology until software and sensors are ready to enable autonomous vehicles that can go anywhere. “Based on where we’re at and where we’ve been, we’re on track to hit that 2019 goal,” Mr Vogt said.

Still, some close to the project acknowledge the length of time and money it will take to get the ride-hailing service up and running. “We know we aren’t commercially ready now,” said Michael Ronen, managing partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers and the firm’s lead investor on the Cruise deal who will join Cruise’s board of directors. “I think now the question is who is going to be successful and how quickly.”

Reuters has learned that the driverless Cruise cars still struggle to identify whether objects on the road are moving or stationary, according to one current and three former Cruise employees who have witnessed the problem. The result is

that

the vehicles hesitate and stop while passing a row of parked motorcycles or bicycles, they said. At times, the software has failed to recognise pedestrians and has mistakenly seen phantom bicycles, causing the cars to brake erratically

, according to two of the sources

.

In addition, the open-source software robotics tools

that

Cruise used to develop the technology has delays that slow messages from the car’s sensors to the car’s brain, according to a fourth former employee and nine other people familiar with Cruise’s technology.

Mr Vogt said the next generation of hardware, software and sensors in the pipeline can help address these issues and will improve performance: “Safety is our measure for launching, and so we certainly will (resolve that) by the time we will release cars on the road without drivers.”

GM’s drive to be seen as a leader in autonomous vehicle technology is critical at a time when the car maker’s shares are down more than 20% for the year.

Reuters

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