General Motors is quietly developing autonomous vehicle technology and plans to have a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Volts roaming the campus of its technical center in suburban Detroit next year.
The company has been relatively quiet about the technology, which companies like Google, Tesla Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi have championed with big promises and impressive demonstrations. But General Motors is no stranger to autonomous tech, which is started exploring almost a decade ago when it collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University for an autonomous vehicle competition sponsored by DARPA.
It plans to capitalize on that work with “Super Cruise,” a semi-autonomous feature that will let a car handle itself on the freeway. The feature is expected to appear on an unspecified Cadillac model next year. The company also will deploy a fleet of robo-Volts, with engineers at the wheel just in case, at the Warren Technical Center.
The center, in suburban Detroit, covers roughly a square mile and features many of the variables autonomous vehicles would encounter in an urban area. Eleven miles of road criss-cross the center, which includes intersections, roundabouts, pedestrians, and cyclists. In that way, it’s GM’s own little city. “We’ll leverage that,” Barra told WIRED. “There’s so much you learn by actually doing.”
It’s a fitting locale for this kind of testing: Since 1956, the Eero Saarinen-designed Warren campus has served as the automaker’s main research hub. Since 2009, it’s been the home of the country’s largest battery lab, where GM develops and tests the all-important lithium-ion batteries that power the Volt, and will power the Bolt, the affordable car with 200 miles of electric range it intends to introduce in 2017.
And the Volt is a fitting car for the project: an electrified system makes it easier for engineers to tap into the controls, but more importantly, it’s the most forward-looking car in the GM stable. There’s a reason nearly every autonomous prototype out there is electric: When you’re talking bout one technology of the future, it makes sense to pair it with another.
Barra adds a third category: connectivity. “You need embedded connectivity to make autonomous work. And that’s where General Motors has a lead,” with nearly two decades of OnStar-equipped vehicles on the market. It’s moving from there to vehicle to vehicle communication, starting with two Cadillac models next year.
Barra says GM isn’t going to rely on the traditional owner-driver model to keep its business going, and will “absolutely” make cars for an age when human driving is defunct. “We are disrupting ourselves.”
GM’s not revealing how the fleet of Volts in Warren fit into grander plans for automation, or if it has a target date to introduce technology beyond Super Cruise to the market. But, Barra says, “we’re gonna move aggressively.”