Software Is Eating The Automobile Industry

General Motors announced plans to hire 3,000 software engineers and tech staff to support the development of electric vehicles and new technologies — by the end of Q1. Especially interesting, that talent won’t have to come to Detroit.

“We have a lot of flexibility on where we can draw talent from,” said Ken Morris, GM’s vice president of autonomous and electric vehicle programs.

Nearly a decade ago, Marc Andreesen coined the phrase, “Software is eating the world.”

That’s still happening.

The GM Cruise AV

Behold the GM Cruise AV.

“General Motors filed a Safety Petition with the Department of Transportation for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, the first production-ready vehicle built from the start to operate safely on its own, with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls.”

According to Reuters:

“GM’s Cruise AV is equipped with the automaker’s fourth-generation self-driving software and hardware, including 21 radars, 16 cameras and five lidars — sensing devices that use laser light to help autonomous cars “see” nearby objects and obstacles.”

And:

“GM executives said seven U.S. states already allow the alterations sought by the automaker. In other states — including those that stipulate a car must have a licensed human driver — GM will work with regulators to change or get a waiver from existing rules.”

Read the whole thing. One of the great stories of the self-driving car revolution continues to be that GM has found a way to make the Cruise acquisition work.

GM to Launch Self-Driving Cars with Lyft

Big news. GM is going to launch its self-driving cars “much faster than people anticipate”, and their going to be on the Lyft network. And by all appearances, the platform will be the Chevy Bolt EV.

GM’s Chief Engineer Pam Fletcher told Tech Insider:

We are working on an on-demand ride-sharing network with Lyft, it’s not something we are thinking about, it’s something we are very much readying for consumer use.

That’s about the extent of the news, though. Open questions include what cities this will operate in, what the launch schedule is, how much the cars will cost, what kind of sensors they use, if they will even have a steering wheel, and when they will be available for purchase outside the Lyft network.

I guess that’s a heads-up to Uber, though.

GM’s New Test Track

GM just announced a new technology center in Warren, Michigan, that will focus on self-driving cars. This follows on the heels of GM’s acquisition of Cruise Automation and of GM’s commitment to hire hundreds of self-driving car engineers in Canada.

To me, one of the most exciting elements of this announcement is GM’s plan to build a self-driving vehicle-focused test track.

Test tracks are a major obstacle to autonomous vehicle development in Silicon Valley, because the land is just so expensive, so regulated, and so hard to bundle together into a large parcel.

Google’s test track is a decommissioned air force base in the Central Valley, hours away from the Mountain View campus.

One of the big advantages of vehicle development in the midwest is the relative bounty of cheap, greenfield land.

GM and Lyft

GM and Lyft announced that they plan to test self-driving cars on real customers within the next year. That’s a pretty aggressive timeline and a pretty amazing goal.

The reports have been pretty light on details, so there’s not much comment on.

One thought is that this would be awesome.

Another is that I’d love to see some firmer details around this prediction. For example, how many cars will there be and how tightly geo-fenced will the routes be?

I was trying to think of how likely I believe this prediction is to come to pass, but it’s impossible to put a finger on that without firmer details.

A third thought is that this would show a remarkably successful and fast integration of the Cruise acquisition into GM.

My last thought is that asking people take a ride in an autonomous vehicle is probably a smaller lift than asking them to purchase one outright. So this seems like a smart way for Lyft to introduce their AVs.

Ford and Google vs. The World

The FT has a good article breaking down the dichotomy between Ford’s approach to self-driving cars and GM’s.

For self-driving car enthusiasts, this is the Level 4 vs. Level 3 distinction.

In layman’s terms, this is the difference between fully autonomous vehicles, and vehicles that have self-driving features but require a human driver.

The Level 4 (fully autonomous) approach is championed by Google and Ford:

Ken Washington, Ford’s head of research and advanced engineering, insists there is no alternative to the company’s approach. There is “no reliable model” for handing control back to drivers in semi-autonomous vehicles at short notice, he says, as systems like GM’s Super Cruise demand in certain situations.

“If you’re told you don’t need to pay attention to something, you could go to sleep and, in a matter of a few milliseconds, you could be told you have to wake up, have your wits about you, that the vehicle needs you to take control,” he adds.

Of course, GM believes differently:

GM’s incremental strategy on self-driving cars is similar to that of most automakers, including Sweden’s Volvo. Germany’s Daimler and Tesla of the US, the electric car manufacturer, already offer systems similar to Super Cruise on some vehicles.

Eric Raphael, GM programme manager for Super Cruise, says the company is building up from existing systems such as cruise control because it is a “big step” to start entrusting even limited driving entirely to vehicles.

I find both approaches exciting. Ultimately, though, the sooner we can get to Level 4 and all of its attendant benefits, the better.

GM’s Autonomous Vehicle Team

GM is putting together a team to focus on autonomous vehicles.

“Doug Parks, GM’s vice president for global product programs, will become vice president for autonomous technology and vehicle execution, reporting to Mark Reuss, head of global product development. Parks will oversee efforts to develop new electrical and battery systems and software for autonomous and electric vehicles, GM said in a statement. The appointments will be effective Feb. 1.”

All that according to Times of India.

That description sounds mostly like a re-org, which is less inspiring than we might hope. My experience is that re-orgs are rarely helpful.

What would be great is to see GM pour more resources into an off-site autonomous vehicle center, or bring in some key hires, or build up a team with new hires, even if it takes cuts to other parts of the business.


Originally published at www.davidincalifornia.com on February 1, 2016.

GM Invests in Lyft

The big news of the day in the autonomous vehicle world is that GM has invested $500 million in Lyft.

This is obviously a huge investment, and a strategic investment, different than if a generic financial firm had fronted the cash.

“GM and Lyft said they will work together to develop a network of self-driving cars that riders can call up on-demand,” reports the Charlotte Observer.

“More immediately, America’s largest automaker will offer Lyft drivers vehicles for short-term rent through various hubs in U.S. cities.”

A driver in this transaction is certainly a fear that self-driving cars, combined with ride-sharing services, will up-end GM’s business model.

“Traditional automakers’ reluctance to make bold moves is linked to the fact that self-driving technology could fundamentally undermine the auto industry’s core business model: selling cars to people.”

The Huffington Post reports that the average cost per year to own a car is $8,698, and that the average car owner only uses the car 5% of the time. Rent-a-car, in the form of Uber and Lyft, is coming soon to a family near you.


Originally published at www.davidincalifornia.com on January 4, 2016.

GM Super-Cruise

S auto sales are booming, which provides money for R&D. Along those lines, GM has just announced that Super-Cruise hands-free driving will appear in Cadillacs next year.

This is a great step forward technologically, although it’s unclear how important this highway-only, handsfree mode will be to consumers.

“It’s going to be a creep, it’s not going to be a mind-bending thing,” said GM’s product development chief Mark Reuss earlier this year. “I don’t think you’re going to see an autonomous vehicle take over the city anytime soon.”

I’m reminded a little bit of the first touch-screen phones. When I worked at mSpot, I managed a few of our products that ported to the Samsung Instinct, which was pretty buggy and not so functional.

Anyone judging the future of smartphones by using the Instinct could have been forgiven for doubting the whole endeavor.

But the iPhone the phones improved rapidly, due to competition and consumer demand, and by 2010 nobody doubted the importance of smartphones.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar story play out with the first autonomous driving systems.


Originally published at www.davidincalifornia.com on October 1, 2015.