2019@ (Adds comments by GM's president and CEO, industry background, company details)
SAN FRANCISCO/DETROIT, Nov 30 (Reuters) - General Motors Co laid out its vision for self-driving vehicles on Thursday, telling investors it planned a commercial launch of fleets of fully autonomous robo-taxis in multiple dense urban environments in 2019, in a challenge to rivals such as Alphabet Inc's Waymo.
The No. 1 U.S. automaker which views electric and autonomous vehicles as the keystones of future transport has been focused on rolling out self-driving cars since its estimated $1 billion acquisition of startup Cruise Automation in early 2016 that provided a toehold in the nascent industry.
Automakers and rivals such as Waymo and Uber Technologies Inc have poured billions into the competitive industry, with each player hoping to gain first-mover advantage. Robo-taxi services are seen as the main use for most self-driving vehicles, including GM's Chevrolet Bolt.
"If we continue on our current rate of change we will be ready to deploy this technology, in large scale, in the most complex environments, in 2019," GM President Dan Ammann said on a conference call.
Safety, Ammann said, will ultimately be the deciding factor on when to take the driver out of the car.
GM has enjoyed a recent surge in its share price, as investors bet on its plans for self-driving and electric cars, although the company's profit is driven entirely by demand for trucks and SUVs in North America, and its growing sales in China.
Until now, GM has said autonomous vehicles were a big part of its future but did not give many details. Now, it is outlining more broadly its strategy, in which self-driving Bolts could be manufactured at scale at GM's existing plants, driving down costs, and rapidly deployed in major metropolitan markets through a ride service to disrupt incumbents.
"We are the only company that has this under one roof," Chief Executive Mary Barra said on the same call, distinguishing GM from its technology rivals in the autonomous sector.
GM said last month it sees deployment of autonomous vehicles in "quarters, not years," and this week it finally provided a peek at its prototype self-driving vehicles.
Self-driving cars and shared mobility will be accretive to GM's core business, Barra said, with the biggest opportunities to begin in the coastal areas of the United States.
Underscoring the competitive landscape, Uber said last week it planned to buy up to 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo, owned by China's Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd, in a nonexclusive deal from 2019 to 2021. No financial details were disclosed.
As one example of bringing down the cost of autonomous vehicles, GM said it expects to lower the cost of long-range Lidar sensors - a key element in self-driving technology - to $300 from $20,000. In October, GM bought Lidar company Strobe Inc, saying its technology could lower the cost of the sensor by 99 percent.
On Tuesday, GM's Cruise Automation gave reporters their first look at the autonomous Bolts that have been testing in San Francisco, Phoenix and Detroit. The cars conservatively navigated busy urban streets but encountered hiccups when it came to double-parked cars and traffic cones.
Earlier this month, GM announced plans to sell 1 million electric vehicles a year by 2026. The cars would be built on a platform that could accommodate multiple sizes and segments, lowering the cost of building them.
(Additional reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Matthew Lewis)