GM takes a public step into driverless car tech

September 9, 2014, 5:25 PM UTC
Stan Honda/AFP—Getty Images

Mary Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, is taking an activist role, pushing the auto giant toward a future in which computers will take over more driving functions from humans.

One part of so-called “autonomous” technology will encompass cars enabled to communicate with one another and with “smart” highways. Barra announced on Sunday that GM is partnering with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Ford Motor, and a University of Michigan consortium to deploy 120 miles of technology-enabled highways around Detroit.

GM researchers have been developing autonomous systems for piloting cars for decades. But the automaker hasn’t been as vocal about it as Nissan, Volkswagen, Toyota, and others. Now, GM is playing catch up, at least in terms of public perception. For Barra, the promise to introduce advanced technology to improve the safety of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians provides a welcome respite from the months of criminal and regulatory scrutiny into defective GM ignition switches.

“We are on a journey that one day, in the not so distant future, intelligent and connected vehicle technologies could help eliminate the crash altogether,” said Jon Lauckner, GM chief technology officer.

In one example of advanced vehicle communication, an enabled car could detect a pedestrian or bicyclist carrying a transponder, yet undetectable to sensors, thereby avoiding or mitigating a collision. GM’s 2017 model CTS will have such equipment, Barra said.

Like other automakers, GM favors an incremental approach toward technology, starting with a feature it calls “Super Cruise” that will be offered on a new 2017 Cadillac model, yet-to-be designated. Super Cruise would allow drivers to take their hands of the wheel, as the car travels safely in its lane, automatically slowing down or speeding up depending on traffic in what GM terms “certain highway conditions.”

Google has been testing autonomous technology on California roads and has announced that it is developing a car that will be fully autonomous, perhaps even lacking a steering wheel and pedals. Automakers regard Google’s project cautiously, though it has spurred them to accelerate and publicize their own efforts in that direction.

Lauckner, citing a study by a technology research firm, said society’s hopes and expectations for autonomous driving are probably exaggerated. The hype surrounding driverless cars follows the pattern of many new trends, such as battery-powered vehicles. But once expectations are tempered by reality, he said, they begin to build once more.

Last week, Toyota said it would begin offering advanced systems to assist drivers and improve safety into its least expensive vehicles. GM so far is using its Cadillac premium car line to showcase such technology. It remains to be seen if GM may soon feel pressure to extend driver-assistance features into less expensive models as well.

And then there’s Google. Who can be sure the technology company won’t soon—and unexpectedly—demonstrate a fully driverless vehicle that completely alters the auto industry’s assumptions?

WATCH: GM’s answer to Google’s driverless car