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 Jun 16, 2019
Exclusive: GM CEO Mary Barra on the race to be first with self-driving cars
GM CEO Mary Barra, facing an aggressive timeline to launch a self-driving taxi fleet, tells "Axios on HBO" they won't deploy the technology until it is safer than a human driver.

Why it matters: In a largely self-regulated industry, it is up to carmakers to demonstrate when self-driving cars are ready for deployment. The race to be first means the buzz and hype have often gotten ahead of the reality.

  • Tesla, for instance, claims it will have a million self-driving robotaxis by next year.
  • "We want to be safe. And so that's what's motivating us," Barra tells "Axios on HBO." "We understand this is life-changing technology."
What's happening: GM's self-driving unit, Cruise, set a 2019 target to launch robotaxis "at scale" in San Francisco, but that timetable already seems in jeopardy.

  • Test vehicles have faced various technical glitches, according to one report in The Information (subscription required), including an embarrassing failed demonstration for the CEO of Honda, a Cruise investor, in April.
  • Though not unusual for technology still in development, the reported problems underscore the challenge of deploying self-driving cars following early hype-fueled advancements.
  • GM's own message has changed over the past year, from telling investors it is "on track" for commercial launch in 2019 to "we'll be gated by safety." (Company officials say the timeline hasn't changed.)
On "Axios on HBO," CEO Mary Barra says the most important thing is making sure the technology is ready to drive on its own, without a backup safety driver.

  • Waymo, the Google spinoff that is Cruise's biggest competitor, launched a commercial ride-hailing service near Phoenix last December called Waymo One. But riders who summon a Waymo van still have a backup safety driver in the front seat.
  • "If you can demonstrate that your technology is safer than a human driver, that's what we think then makes it acceptable to put out on the road," Barra said.
Even without a safety driver, GM's first AVs for public use will likely be equipped with a steering wheel and pedals because the U.S. Department of Transportation hasn't acted on its request for an exemption of motor vehicle safety laws that require manual controls.

While not committing to a launch date, Barra says she doesn't regret the 2019 target: "It's a rallying cry. And I think it's been motivational."

What we're watching: While Cruise continues to improve the technical capabilities of its cars and weighs the timing of their deployment, GM could draw lessons from the problems faced by scooter companies in San Francisco.

  • Companies like Bird and Lime were booted off the streets and only allowed to return by applying for highly regulated permits from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
The bottom line: While weighing whether its self-driving technology is ready, GM must also consider whether consumers are ready to ride in a car when no one's behind the wheel.