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GM’s First Self-Driving Cars Will Still Be Driven by Humans

A Lyft "glowstache" on a GM car. A Lyft "glowstache" on a GM car.
A Lyft "glowstache" on a GM car. Courtesy of Lyft

General Motors will deploy a network of self-driving cars within Lyft’s service in a couple of years—but with a catch. In the beginning, those automated vehicles will have drivers, said Mike Ableson, GM’s vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, during a Senate Commerce hearing on Tuesday.

GM envisions introducing self-driving car technology through ride-sharing, Ableson said during the discussion on autonomous vehicles.

“We would introduce it originally as vehicles with drivers, because we do agree we need to collect data and make sure the systems are operating as we expect them to before we actually start deploying the vehicles without drivers,” Ableson said. “We think this offers a framework that we can develop and deploy this technology in a very safe way.”

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Ableson said GM expects the self-driving vehicles with drivers to appear within the next couple of years.

“When they actually start working without drivers will depend on how the technology develops and what the criteria agreed with the regulators are,” he added.

GM’s aim is to be the first to introduce self-driving cars—an intention that CEO and Chairman Mary Barra mentioned in the company’s February earnings call with analysts. General Motors (GM) and its new business partner Lyft (LYFT), believe ridesharing is the broadest, most cost effective way to bring self-driving car technology to the masses. And while ridesharing technology is ready to go, self-driving cars still have a number of technical, safety, regulatory, legal, and cybersecurity issues to be solved before they can be used by the public.

But the company’s approach isn’t without risk. It isn’t clear what these first GM self-driving cars would look like. For example, will they be fully autonomous cars that are equipped with steering wheels and pedals so a driver could take control, if needed? If so, the automaker faces considerable liability if a regular person who happens to give rides through the Lyft platform isn’t properly trained.

GM partners with Lyft to develop self-driving cars:

GM has worked quietly on autonomous vehicle technology for some time. In the past year, it’s been particularly public and aggressive about its plans.

In January, the automaker invested $500 million into Lyft. Shortly after that announcement, the the company launched a car-sharing service called Maven, which combines and expands several of its existing test programs under one brand.

GM also purchased the assets of the now defunct ride-hailing service Sidecar, and last week spent more than $1 billion for self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation. On Monday, GM and Lyft launched a short-term car rental program aimed at bringing on more drivers to the ride-hailing service.

Executives from Google (GOOG), Delphi, and Lyft, as well as the director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab also testified at the hearing on self-driving cars.