GM lets its Cruise Automation self-driving unit work autonomously

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DETROIT — Despite spending more than $1 billion to acquire and expand Cruise Automation, General Motors is keeping its distance — both figuratively and literally — from the autonomous-vehicle startup.

The two companies operate in different spheres: GM, rooted in Detroit and drawing on its century of manufacturing experience, focuses on the production of the test vehicles and integration of the self-driving hardware, while Cruise, based in San Francisco, develops and refines the software that controls the systems.

The unique relationship was described by GM CEO Mary Barra and Doug Parks, head of GM autonomous technology and vehicle execution, during an event last week to mark the production of 130 second-generation, self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs at GM’s Orion Township, Mich., factory.

“Cruise Automation is running as a startup,” Barra said. “Not only are they responsible for the technology, but they’re responsible for the commercialization — so the entire business.”

For GM, that means resisting the temptation shared by many automakers historically to control and fully integrate the companies they acquire. Company executives say it’s a needed change as the legacy auto industry learns to work more constructively with Silicon Valley technology partners. And it spares the two companies the time and disruption of integrating two very different corporate cultures.

Cruise, for its part, keeps a low profile, occasionally releasing un-narrated footage of its self-driving Bolt running tests on the streets of San Francisco. The videos feature the Cruise logo, identifying it as “a General Motors company,” and a link to its own recruiting site.

Cruise’s CEO and co-founder, Kyle Vogt, rarely gives interviews and wasn’t available to comment for this report. Before the GM acquisition in March 2016, Cruise was developing $10,000 kits to retrofit vehicles with autonomous capability.

“There’s a lot of talent at Cruise, and one of the best things about Cruise is the speed at which they operate,” said Parks. “So when we acquired them … the last thing we wanted to do is squelch that.”

Keeping tabs

That’s not to say GM isn’t keeping tabs on its self-driving jewel.

A call or teleconference is held every day between Parks and his Cruise counterparts. Parks said they discuss daily occurrences and any imminent issues. The call, he says, can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

Parks: “A lot of talent at Cruise”

“It’s more about, is there something that needs to be fixed today that can’t wait till tomorrow? It’s not a status and report kind of thing,” he said. “We enable those guys to go hard and fast. They challenge us. Sometimes we challenge them.”

Parks said he and members of his management team typically travel to San Francisco about once a month, with engineers from both locations regularly traveling back and forth.

Cruise is in the beginning stages of adding more than 1,100 jobs over the next five years. The jobs were part of an April announcement that it would invest $14 million for a new r&d facility in San Francisco.

Once the hiring is complete, Cruise’s employment will be comparable to Parks’ current self-driving team of nearly 1,000 people at GM’s r&d headquarters in Warren, Mich.

The autonomous Chevy Bolt has a sensor roof rack with lidars and lasers that spin to give details about the vehicle’s surroundings.

GM is breaking new ground on its own. Barra touted the completed production of the at the company’s Orion Assembly as a “production milestone” for the industry.

“Production of these vehicles began in January, making GM the first, and to this day, the only automotive company to assemble self-driving vehicles in a mass-production facility,” she said.

The autonomous Bolts have dozens of cameras and sensors, including a sensor roof rack with five lidars with 32 lasers each that quickly spin 360 degrees to give a detailed view of the vehicle’s surroundings. They are assembled alongside the Chevrolet Sonic and non-autonomous versions of the Bolt EV, which should give GM a “good handle” on things for when the time comes to ramp up production, said IHS senior analyst Stephanie Brinley.

Software, calibration

Once the vehicles leave the Michigan plant, Parks said, they are sent to Cruise for software installation, calibration and verification.

After that, the validated vehicles remain in San Francisco or are sent to other testing areas in Arizona and Michigan.

GM began testing a fleet of more than 50 first-generation self-driving Bolts last spring in California and Arizona, and in January in Michigan. The company declined to say how many miles the vehicles have driven autonomously.

GM plans to launch production of self-driving Bolt EVs first for ride-sharing applications in major cities, but hasn’t set a timeline for that.

In 2016, GM paid $500 million for a minority stake and a board position in Lyft Inc., the No. 2 ride-sharing firm after Uber Technologies Inc.

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