General Motors CEO Mary Barra Announces Major Self-Driving Chevy Bolt Initiative

GM Chevy Bolt self-driving cars built and tested in Michigan

In what the media is calling a rare event, General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra held a press conference Thursday where she outlined the company’s plans to build and assemble self-driving Chevy Bolts at their Orion Assembly Plant and test them on Michigan roads.

If you’ve been following the news on automated technology, you’re aware that Michigan recently passed into law a series of bills allowing self-driving cars to operate on the state’s roads, a pioneering move by Governor Rick Snyder to become the first state to legalize not just the testing, but full-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles on its roadways.

READ: Autonomous Cars Now Legal on Michigan Roads. Did Gov. Snyder Jump the Gun?

Using this opportunity to catapult GM into one of the lead positions in this segment – currently being led by electric car and power storage company Tesla Motors and car-hailing service Uber – Barra has come out saying that GM will immediately start testing self-driving cars in Michigan. She added that GM would be first large-scale car company to built a fully autonomous prototype in an assembly plant.

As with Uber’s test vehicles in Pittsburgh, the Chevy Bolts used in these tests will have a safety engineer at the wheel to take over if or when required. These engineers have apparently already given names to their cars, which are being displayed on the hood and on the rear bumper.

“We will now expand AV (autonomous vehicle) activities on public roads on the outskirts of our Warren campus,” she said. “And within the next several months, we will expand testing to Metro Detroit…We’re ensuring our AVs can operate safely across a whole range of road, weather and climate conditions.”

As such, Michigan will serve as the testing ground for cold weather and winter driving tests for their autonomous fleet of Chevy Bolts. This is something their chief competitor Ford has been doing for some time as well, and has even acquired 3D mapping technology through its investment earlier this year in Civil Maps, a company founded by Yahoo Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang.

READ: Ford Invests in Civil Maps, Developer of 3D Mapping for Driverless Cars

Meanwhile, earlier this year GM acquired Cruise Automation, a San Francisco based autonomous vehicle software startup, to help boost their capabilities in self-driving technology.

Though Ford’s plan was to deploy fully autonomous cars by 2021, it looks like GM could well beat them to the punch. But the new law in Michigan could speed up Ford’s strategy, as well as that of other majors like Uber and Tesla.

GM’s quick moves might surprise many, but Barra did add a disclaimer to their speed on this initiative:

“We’re not putting a date on it. I think you see by our announcement today we are working extremely aggressive. We’re being gated by safety. We want to make sure we have safe and reliable autonomous vehicles on the road.”

True autonomous driving means a vehicle must be able to operate under all conditions that an experienced human driver can. That could take several years to happen, even though several companies are posturing as if they’ll do it next year. A lot of testing is involved, and even deep-pocketed companies won’t have the resources to fully test such vehicles under all possible conditions and certify them as being safe for deployment across an entire state, let alone all over the United States.

However, the technology will evolve much faster than ever because most of the car majors are now in the game, and even the tech biggies like Apple and Google have made their intent known and are moving to bring true autonomous driving technology into reality.

It is shaping up to be an exciting time for self-driving vehicles as companies who stand to gain the most from self-driving cars join the bandwagon with companies who stand to lose the most from not having such tech as part of their future plans.

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