GM announced on 13 June the completion of the first phase of Bolt electric vehicle (EV) self-driving vehicle production at its Orion Assembly Plant. On the same date, Apple CEO Tim Cook outlined broad strokes of its company plans related to self-driving vehicles and Audi announced the first test of self-driving cars in New York. Although unrelated, the activities highlight the fast pace of development in this area.
IHS Markit Perspective
- Significance: Announcements from three separate companies regarding progress towards self-driving (or autonomous) vehicles were issued on 13 June. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke with Bloomberg News, while GM CEO and chairman Mary Barra addressed employees and media at GM's Orion Assembly Plant.
- Implications: Two companies expected to be major players in the future of self-driving vehicles and transportation as a service made announcements reflecting the strategic approach each is taking to the market. The two are also very different because GM has a much-more vertically integrated approach and Apple appears to be planning to supply technology.
- Outlook: These announcements were unrelated but speak to the pace of the development and to the high expectations for self-driving vehicles. The comments from Apple's CEO suggest a strategy that leverages Apple's strengths, just as GM's announcement follows a strategy that leverages GM's strengths. The scope of Apple's development to date is not yet clear, while GM has clearly clarified that company is moving fast towards consumer-ready production and commercialization.
GM and self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EV test
GM announced that it had completed the first round of production of its self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle (EV) at an event in the Orion Assembly Plant in Lake Orion, Michigan, on 13 June. The company has produced 130 units at the Orion plant using mass-production methods and being produced on the same vehicle line as the regular Bolt EV and Chevrolet Sonic. "This production milestone brings us one step closer to making our vision of personal mobility a reality. Expansion of our real-world test fleet will help ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we build into all of our vehicles," according to GM CEO and chairman Mary Barra, speaking to a group of employees and media. Barra added, "Production of these vehicles began in January, making GM the first, and to this day, the only automotive company to assemble self-driving vehicles in a mass-production facility."
Barra indicated that GM saw mobility solutions and self-driving vehicles through ride-sharing companies when ready for commercialization. She said, "We believe one of the best ways to deliver these solutions is through greater access to self-driving EVs deployed in sharing networks. To get to this future, we are pursuing both an evolutionary path, with technologies such as automatic emergency braking and SuperCruise, and a revolutionary path. The clearest evidence of this is the state-of-the-art vehicles you see here today …. Going forward, we will first introduce autonomous technology to customers in ride-sharing fleets in major US cities. We believe that the potential to significantly reduce the cost per mile of ride-sharing services and allow us to really move beyond the tipping point where transportation as a service becomes a very important business opportunity for General Motors." Barra's remarks are consistent with comments from GM executives over the past year.
The production of the self-driving Bolt EVs at Orion increased GM's test fleet from 50 to 180, and the 130 units built on the assembly line were called the second generation of self-driving vehicle. The first 50 vehicles were assembled at Orion Assembly Plant, but the self-driving hardware and software were retrofitted by GM's autonomous vehicle technology subsidiary, Cruise Automation. The 130 vehicles GM completed in the second round, which began in January 2017, were assembled with the latest self-driving equipment and using componentry integrated in the vehicle and installed in the normal course of production. GM did not provide a detailed break out of components, although acknowledged five light detection and ranging (LiDAR), each with 32 lasers, noting two radar units that sat on each of the front fenders and swiveled to "see" where needed. IHS Markit analyst Jeremy Carlson estimates there are nine cameras, five parking cameras, and six radars on the vehicle based on images of the self-driving Bolt. Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt has noted that one camera is dedicated to simply reading street signs and traffic lights based on a video played at the event.
When asked about hardware sourcing, GM has declined to comment on specific LiDAR or camera suppliers. However, GM has said that the LiDAR and camera suite subassembly unit or "sensor roof rack" that sits on top of the vehicle – looking a little more a part of the car but still an odd top hat – is being assembled at the company's factory in Brownstown, Michigan, which also assembles battery packs for the Bolt EV and Volt extended range hybrid EV (HEV). Andrew Farah, the current GM chief technical architect for autonomous vehicles and former member of both Bolt and Volt vehicle development teams, has clarified that Cruise Automation's key role is the algorithms and software to support autonomous driving, according to him at the event. Although the hardware is assembled by GM, selection and integration decisions are made in collaboration between the Cruise Automation and traditional GM product development teams. Farah said there is a high level of collaboration and communication between Cruise and GM, although each largely has specific responsibilities relative to self-driving car development.
GM had earlier confirmed production-line assembly of the self-driving Bolt EV and the original 50 test cars. The first cars are being tested in San Francisco, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; and in the Metro Detroit area. The Arizona and California tests have been going since June 2016 and the Michigan tests since January. Although GM has indicated testing will expand with the new 130 vehicles, it has declined to confirm where the tests may expand to next or a specific start date for testing.
A GM spokesperson at the event has confirmed that although the company has stated that it is working towards being first to market, it will only do so if the company is satisfied that it is ready to go. At the event, Barra said, "This next-generation vehicle will allow us to increase that testing and really accelerate our development of safe, reliable, and fully autonomous vehicles."
Apple's CEO comments on company autonomous vehicle plans
Separately, Apple CEO Tim Cook has described the company's intentions in the field of autonomous vehicles in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg News at the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California.
In the interview, which IHS Markit has seen, Cook has said, "There is a major disruption looming there, not only for self-driving cars, but also the electrification piece. If you've driven an all-electric car, it's actually a marvelous experience .… Plus, you have ride sharing on top of this, and so you have kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same timeframe. So, as we look at it and what we're focusing on publicly is on autonomous systems and clearly one purpose of autonomous systems is self-driving cars. There are others. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It's probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on. So, autonomy is something that is incredibly exciting for us and we'll see where it takes us. We're not really saying from a product point of view what we will do. But we are being straightforward that it's a core technology that we view as very important." The interview did not clarify further plans, timing, or level of development success to date. Bloomberg and other media have reported over time that Apple has scaled back its plan. At one point, the company was rumored to be working to develop a full vehicle, with more than 1,000 engineers devoted to the project, although that programme was later reportedly scaled back. Although this is Apple's first public comments on its programmes, the company has weighed in on proposed autonomous vehicle regulations and applied for a permit to test self-driving vehicles in California. Apple has also been rumored to be working with Bosch on the technology.
Outlooks and Implications
These announcements were unrelated, but they certainly speak to the pace of development and to the high expectations both the software and automotive industries have for self-driving vehicles. The comments from Apple's CEO suggest that the company is looking to develop the software and technology necessary to support self-driving vehicles and not the vehicles themselves. This strategy can leverage Apple's strengths just as GM's strategy to purchase Cruise Automation and essentially buy the skills to develop necessary algorithms and software and integrate that expertise directly into its manufacturing strengths leverages GM's strengths. The scope of Apple's development to date is not yet clear, while GM has clearly clarified that the company is moving fast towards consumer-ready production and commercialization.
GM, in becoming the self-proclaimed first automaker to build a self-driving vehicle using mass-production technology and in a mass-production facility, is the first to be poised to be able to produce the vehicles at scale once the company determines they are ready for deployment. In working with Cruise Automation for essentially the logic backbone of the system but leveraging its own expertise in production, integration, procurement, and other manufacturing issues, GM may have pulled into a leading position relative to this technology. Farah told IHS Markit that although the 130 vehicles built at Orion were test vehicles and not intended for sale, the production was to full production standards and processes – from a manufacturing standpoint, these vehicles are full production. From a production standpoint, GM is ready to build self-driving vehicles. Having purchased Cruise Automation but also given that outlet the space it needs to maintain its start-up mentality and speed, the development work is being done with an integrated part of the company, not an external partner. GM's stake in Lyft and its aggressive development of its Maven mobility services company also leave the company well-positioned with strong outlets and partners for deploying its commercial product when the time comes.
Cook's comments are the first that Apple has formally and publicly acknowledged work on autonomous vehicle technology and seem to support prior speculation that Apple has backed away from an earlier plan to produce vehicles; rather, the company appears to be taking a route more similar to Waymo, which has indicated that it does not plan to build its own vehicles and will work with partners instead. The first partnership for Waymo is with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which is providing Waymo with 600 Chrysler Pacifica hybrids with its self-driving technology integrated, although Waymo is also reportedly working with Lyft.
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