The advent of self-driving cars, the subject of so much fanfare over the last few years by automakers and technology companies, may be just around the corner — at least according to General Motors.
On Friday, G.M. submitted a petition to the United States Department of Transportation seeking permission to begin operating fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels or pedals — in commercial ride-hailing and taxi services in 2019.
What’s more, the company said the autonomous vehicle, called the Cruise AV, could be put into production on a standard assembly line once approval is granted by the federal and any authorities in states where they would operate.
The Cruise AV is a version of the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt. The Bolt and Cruise AV prototypes are produced at a factory in Orion Township, Mich., although a G.M. spokesman declined to confirm if mass production of the self-driving model would take place there.
“There are a number of hurdles to clear before self-driving cars transition from laboratory experiments to real-world functionality,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, an automotive data firm. “Two of those hurdles, mass production and government regulation, appear to be within General Motors’ grasp. If government approval is granted, and G.M. begins providing autonomous taxi service to end users in multiple markets, we’ll officially be living in a world of self-driving cars.”
The Cruise AV is a four-passenger vehicle with an array of radar, cameras and laser sensors that are clustered on its roof and allow the car to navigate its way through city street and recognize other vehicles, pedestrians, intersections and other obstacles. Since it does not have a steering wheel, it has two passenger seats in front and a center console with a display screen and a few audio and climate buttons and knobs.
If approved, the Cruise AVs would probably appear first in San Francisco or Phoenix, where G.M.’s self-driving subsidiary, Cruise Automation, is conducting tests. In San Francisco, the division has set up a ride-hailing service using about 50 Cruise AVs, although the cars are available only for some of its 250 employees, not public customers.
Approval from the Transportation Department is expected to take several months, and then G.M. would need local clearance before it could provide rides in Cruise AVs to the public.
Still, G.M. appears to have a jump in the race to field self-driving cars. Ford Motor is also developing a car with no steering wheel or pedals, but has said it won’t go into mass production until 2021.
Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company spun out of Google, is testing its own fully autonomous cars in pilot programs in Arizona and California. The ride service Lyft and a technology start-up called Nutonomy recently began testing self-driving cars in Boston. Lyft’s rival, Uber, is running a pilot program in Pittsburgh.
Industry analysts say automakers and technology companies could generate billions of dollars in revenue and profit by selling or leasing self-driving cars to ride services, taxi fleets and delivery companies. Ford said this week that it would work with Domino’s Pizza and a start-up delivery company, Postmates, to use its autonomous prototypes in limited commercial tests this year.