My ride in GM's self-driving car offers a taste of what's possible

Key Points
  • General Motors took the wraps off Cruise Automation, its autonomous drive unit.
  • Cruise is working on self-driving cars and allowed reporters and analysts to test it out.
  • The test occurred on the complex and tricky streets of San Francisco.
  • The ride was a clear sign that GM can compete with Waymo and others developing self-driving cars.
GM takes wraps off self-driving cars

As self-driving vehicles go, the Chevy Bolt I rode in Tuesday morning in San Francisco shows General Motors is ready for the challenge of operating self-driving vehicles on complex and often tricky city streets.

The question now is when will GM take the next step and go from testing self-driving cars to running a fleet of autonomous-drive cars offering rides to the public.

"We want to demonstrate to people how much progress is made to over our overall mission, which is to deploy this technology at very large scale and the most complex environments with the right safety," said Dan Ammann, president of General Motors.

While many in the auto industry this week will be focused on the Los Angeles Auto Show, GM is focused 380 miles to the north giving reporters and analysts a look at its work developing and deploying self-driving cars.

On Thursday, CEO Mary Barra will outline the automaker's strategy for autonomous vehicles. Before that GM gave a small number of reporters, including me, short rides on pre-determined routes in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood.

So what was it like? More importantly, how does it compare to other autonomous-drive vehicles like Waymo's self-driving minivan I rode in last month.

The the self-driving Chevy Bolt took me on a 2.2-mile long ride through side streets where we encountered construction trucks, bicyclists, pedestrians and other vehicles, some of which cut us off or turned in front of us without slowing down or signaling a turn.

Through it all, the GM's Cruise Automation Chevy Bolt handled all of the potential traffic problems without any issues. It is clear GM's focus on safety is paying off with a self-driving car ready for the curve balls that come with city driving.

Was it a smooth ride? No. More than once the Bolt stopped or paused due to another vehicle in the area or a construction worker walking in the street while working on a project nearby. If you or I were driving the car in those same situations we would likely have slowed down or steered to the side of the lane in a less herky-jerky fashion.

That was the clearest indication GM's self-driving cars and the technology in them still need refinement before they are ready for the public. It's a point GM executives readily admit.
Still, they say their self-driving cars are becoming safer day by day as the automaker logs tens of thousands of miles in San Francisco and Arizona.

"We have test fleet in San Francisco and we have a test fleet in Scottsdale in Arizona," said Ammann. "There is a simple rule of thumb. Our cars here will see more in one minute in San Francisco than they will see in one hour of driving in Scottsdale."

How did riding in GM's self-driving Chevy Bolt compare to riding in Waymo's self-driving Chrysler minivan?

Waymo's was driving on a closed course with preset obstructions like pedestrians or cars stalled in intersections, while GM's self-driving Bolt was taking me through city streets filled with unpredictability.

Waymo's ride was smoother, but also far-less challenging. In addition, while both vehicles had a video screens in the back seat showing the path of the vehicle, Waymo's minivan was much more focused on the user experience. The video screens conveyed more detailed information about the drive and traffic to the person riding in the back seat.

Finally, GM had a safety driver ready to grab the steering wheel even though the self-driving Bolt made all the driving decisions during my short ride. By comparison, the Waymo minivan had no one sitting behind the steering wheel for my test ride on a closed course.

Overall, after riding in GM's self-driving Chevy Bolt, it is clear the automaker is well-positioned to take on Waymo and other competitors developing autonomous-drive vehicles. Furthermore, with self-driving cars likely to take off in urban environments as part of a fleet of ride-hailing vehicles, GM's Chevy Bolts will be ready for those challenges.

The question now is when will GM take that next step.