On a conference call with investors yesterday, General Motors President Dan Ammann talked self-driving taxis. According to Reuters, Ammann told investors that the automaker is planning a robo-taxi fleet launch in 2019.
That's a real commercial launch. Real cars picking up real people and transporting them for real money, although the rides will be limited to select urban areas. That's as opposed to the closely monitored testing and demonstration rides that the company has been conducting so far.
Since their purchase of autonomous tech firm Cruise Automation last year, GM has been sharply focused on self-driving vehicles. They've invested billions, hoping to keep pace with or leapfrog competitors Waymo and Uber.
Working with Cruise Automation, GM has a big advantage over those competitors. It's the only one that can put together an entire autonomous vehicle. From tires to Lidar sensors, and all the hardware and software in between. Waymo, which uses modified Chrysler Pacifica vans, hopes to have a small network in place next year but their more prototype style of construction could limit the size. Uber has committed to purchasing 24,000 Volvo XC90 SUVs between 2019 and 2021 but has the same limitations. GM has already produced multiple generations of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV with autonomous capability on the same assembly line as the regular Bolt.
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GM wants to move to self-driving ride-hailing services, because, in the words of Ammann, the revenue from one robo-taxi could be "several hundred thousands of dollars." That's a big contrast from the US $30,000 the company averages over the life of a current vehicle. CFO Chuck Stevens said that the company has a path to cut 40 percent out of their ride-hailing costs, which could give the company margins near 30 percent on the new tech.
One example of the cost cutting was in lidar sensors. Those are essential to self-driving, but now cost well over $20,000 each. After GM's purchase of Lidar firm Strobe Inc, the company hopes to cut that cost to $300, although they didn't give a timeline for that.
Ammann said that safety will be the ultimate factor in when the robo fleet hits the road.
GM said that it's too early to say how the ride-hailing fleet would be branded. GM could use the Cruise Automation brand, stick with the Bolt name, use the name of their existing conventional car-sharing company Maven, or come up with an entirely new brand.