Autonomous cars and ridesharing go together like a horse and carriage in General Motors’ strategy for future mobility.
“It is very clear to us that autonomous technology will fundamentally change the industry,” Michael Ableson, GM’s vice president of global portfolio planning and strategy, said in an interview with Autotrader. “There is no greater impact on the industry than self-driving cars.”
Ableson’s vision for self-driving cars is “on-demand autonomous.” Indeed, some early technology adopters will buy autonomous vehicles as their personal transportation. However, Ableson sees most people accessing autonomous vehicles through a ridesharing service. In that vision, consumers would be able to order different kinds of vehicles for different occasions. Most autonomous vehicles would be in congested urban areas, supplementing mass transit, and many would be electric vehicles, which are ideally suited for stop-and-go city driving.
Last year, GM CEO Mary Barra assigned Ableson the task of developing the automaker’s strategy for autonomous vehicles. As a mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his master’s degree, Ableson expected self-driving cars would be a reality in his lifetime — now he needed to create a successful business model for them.
Ableson became convinced that deploying autonomous vehicles in ridesharing fleets was the way to go after GM surveyed ridesharing services about what they would pay for self-driving cars. Ableson refused to reveal that price, but he said it was substantial enough to be good business for GM. Human drivers, after all, are the biggest cost for ridesharing companies, an expense that would be largely eliminated over time with driverless cars.
To that end, GM paid $500 million for a stake and a strategic alliance in Lyft, the second biggest ridesharing service behind Uber. Ableson said Lyft had always had a vision of autonomous ridesharing. Lyft is an essential part of GM’s Maven, the automaker’s umbrella for personal mobility operations, including ridesharing and carsharing. Maven now operates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York City and Chicago, with other cities planned for the future.
To speed up putting autonomous cars on the road, GM recently spent $1 billion to buy Cruise Automation, a San Francisco technology company that already has self-driving cars on California roads. Recently, GM confirmed that Cruise Automation is working on an electrified and autonomous version of the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt. Those cars eventually will go into a Lyft autonomous fleet.
The acquisition of Cruise and the stake in and alliance with Lyft are steps in GM’s goal to redefine the future of personal mobility, the automaker said.
When will GM’s on-demand autonomous future be realized? “It’s hard to say and depends largely on regulators,” said Ableson. However, within 1 to 2 years, GM with Lyft will have autonomous vehicles in testing and then deployed, though Lyft fleets will still include drivers.
Challenges remain with autonomous vehicles. The biggest is regulations. “We’re in ongoing dialog with regulators,” said Ableson, particularly in the area of what it will take to prove autonomous vehicles are safe.
Insurance is less of an issue. Insurance rates should drop because there will be fewer accidents, a trend that will accelerate over time. When accidents occur, they can be investigated, and software updates can be made to make sure that kind of accident doesn’t happen again. In addition, accidents should decline as more autonomous vehicles take to the roads.
Challenges remain in congested areas. Self-driving vehicles on highways have been well proven, but congested cities present exponentially more problems, largely because of the unpredictability of human-driver actions. “We can’t test for every scenario,” said Ableson. “There’s no substitute for driver intuition,” he added, noting the eye-to-eye contact of a driver with a bicyclist, for example.
Ableson said cost is the least of his worries, despite the fact that autonomous vehicles will be very expensive initially, though he did not give a number. “Those costs will drop as volume increases,” he said, and ridesharing will offset those costs. He predicts ridesharing fees will fall with increasing volume of autonomous vehicles on the road.
GM expects higher sales volume initially when autonomous vehicles hit the market. However, Ableson says, GM is focused on vehicle miles traveled more than volume of vehicles sold as he sees GM, with Lyft as a partner, owning autonomous vehicles initially.
He also sees GM’s OnStar connectivity as a huge advantage. While other automakers will have to develop that connectivity expertise, GM has had it for years with OnStar. He envisions OnStar will continue to provide a human link to the operator of an autonomous vehicle with questions about the technology.
Ableson believes the United States is well ahead of other countries in actually putting autonomous vehicles on the road. He predicts the first deployments will be in the United States. Other countries, specifically Singapore, the UK and China, are interested, as well. China, he added, presents a much more difficult environment for more scenarios that self-driving cars have to encounter.
IHS Automotive agrees that the United States will be an early leader in autonomous vehicle technology, predicting that it will eventually lead to nearly 21 million self-driving cars on the world’s roads by 2035.
Ableson said autonomous vehicles will not only drastically cut traffic accidents but will also be able to assist underserved markets, such as the elderly, those with disabilities and residents of areas where public transit is not widely available.
The societal implications of autonomous vehicles are enormous, he said, much as the replacement of the horse and carriage with the automobile was transformational.