Autonomous Vehicles: An Investment in Safety

This article originally appeared in the Corporate Venture Connection.

The rapid pace of development in autonomous vehicle technology is capturing headlines every day. The speed at which the technology is advancing surprises even the most ardent of technology watchers. But two questions that seem to be lost in all the tech frenzy is why this technology is important and what lies ahead in terms of business opportunities beyond the vehicle and technology itself.

In 2015, more than 30,000 people died in traffic accidents in the U.S. alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even more staggering, more than 90 percent of those lost lives were the result of driver error. The causes are as common as the sun rising: driver distraction and inattentiveness. Losing this many lives in a completely preventable fashion shouldn’t be something we accept in today’s society with the technology that exists today.

That’s why General Motors has made a commitment to develop autonomous vehicle technology that will make our roads safer and reduce traffic fatalities. It’s a journey we have been on since the early 2000s, when GM partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop autonomous vehicle technology. The result was the first vehicle to finish a 60-mile city course in less than six hours with no human intervention, which resulted in a victory at the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007.

In 2016, GM put a significant stake in the ground in the autonomous technology race: In January 2016, the company announced a $500 million investment in Lyft, the fastest-growing ride share company in the U.S. That was closely followed in March with he announced acquisition of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, which was developing an autonomous vehicle software suite that will act as the control system for the AVs during operation.

The importance of these two investments cannot be understated in terms of a competitive advantage for GM in the autonomous race. The speed of development showcased by the Cruise Automation team provides a foundation to help GM reduce its time to market for the technology, while Lyft provides an opportunity for the first application of GM’s fully autonomous technology. Unlike some automakers and tech companies that are focused on making autonomous vehicle technology available to the masses through retail purchase options on future vehicles, GM believes it makes more sense to launch fully autonomous technology first in an on-demand ride sharing network in select cities throughout the U.S.

There are a few factors that must be addressed before fully autonomous vehicles can gain mass consumer acceptance. The first is trust. A recent study by Deloitte, which surveyed 22,000 consumers in 17 countries around the world, showed that 74% of U.S. consumers polled felt fully autonomous vehicles would be unsafe. That’s more than a little startling and points to the fact of a need to provide consumers with familiarity of the technology in a comfortable and convenient solution. Allowing consumers to experience fully autonomous technology via a ride sharing service at the outset will help to relieve some of those concerns. One silver-lining stat from the Deloitte study: 54% of U.S. consumers said they would be more likely to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle if it were offered by a brand they trusted – 47% of those U.S. consumers said a traditional car manufacturer brand would top their most trusted list.

The vision of deploying an on-demand autonomous ride sharing network will require additional investment in new technologies and infrastructure to support deployment. In GM’s case, this will require working with non-traditional suppliers for components such as cameras, sensors and advanced computing hardware. The development and engineering of autonomous vehicles requires suppliers to develop components that must meet automotive durability requirements – hundreds of thousands of miles of operation in varying climates and weather conditions. This is no small feat when it comes to some advance technologies like LIDAR and hi-definition camera systems.

Additional investment will also be required for development of the infrastructure to support app development and the interface customers will interact with as part of the autonomous ride share experience, as well as the back office computing needed to support the network.

Autonomous vehicle technology will continue to play a significant role in GM’s future. Just as we have done with our other advanced technologies (electrification and fuel cells) we will follow a three pronged strategy when it comes to investment:

  • Build – We will create our own hardware and software if necessary to assure the technology lives up to the promise of our respective brands.
  • Buy – If it is determined a technology under development by an outside company needs to become a part of our suite, we will work through either our GM Ventures or mergers and acquisitions teams to move to acquire the technology.
  • Partner – We will partner with suppliers who have the best technology to meet our needs.

GM is committed to being a driving force in the development and deployment of safe, reliable autonomous vehicle technology that will help to reduce fatalities and injuries on our roadways, while also improving accessibility of mobility to underserved audiences.

Kevin Kelly is Senior Manager of Advanced Technology Communications at General Motors.

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