- General Motors has a plan that includes deploying a small fleet of driverless ride-share cars with no human driver or controls—meaning no steering wheel in the vehicle.
- As an explanation, GM says this kind of self-driving car has the potential to be way safer than cars controlled by people.
- NHTSA confirmed Friday, as first reported by Reuters, that it’s talking with the automaker and says it will take action on GM’s request soon.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has confirmed it is talking with General Motors about the automaker’s plan to deploy a small fleet of zero-emission autonomous vehicles (ZEAVs) that are unlike anything else on the road today. That’s because the vehicles in question would not have a steering wheel.
In more technical terms, GM’s petition to NHTSA requests permission to test ZEAVs “without a human driver and without human driver controls.” The petition says that the limited number of these ZEAVs—capped at 2500 deployed per year—are meant to advance safety and low-emission technology and are designed to be “fully self-driving for all trips.” The cars would be built on the same architecture as the Chevrolet Bolt EV.
NHTSA administrator James Owens told Reuters on Friday that the agency expects to make a decision “soon” on GM’s request, which was originally filed in January 2018. Nuro, a startup that is testing driverless delivery vehicles, also requested that NHTSA allow its low-speed, fully automated delivery vehicles, which have a front-end design without a traditional windshield, on the road.
Owens said that NHTSA will “definitely” respond to these two petitions next year. “I expect we’re going to be able to move forward with these petitions soon—as soon as we can,” he said. “This will be a big deal because this will be the first such action that will be taken.” Owens said that one priority for NHTSA is to make sure any driverless vehicles on public roads are as safe as those driven by people. He did not specify which people.
GM’s 100-page petition was not subtle in explaining how a vehicle driven entirely by a computer will be a benefit to the public. “Because human error or behavior leads to 94 percent of vehicle crashes, technology that eliminates the human driver has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives and to avoid or mitigate hundreds of thousands of vehicle crashes every year in the United States alone,” the company wrote. “Every day in the United States, more than 100 lives are lost in car crashes. Every day of delay in getting autonomous vehicles safely on American roads is a day in which we are losing lives that could be saved.”
GM’s deployment plan, should NHTSA grant its request, includes a “GM-controlled ride-share program” in which “GM will facilitate public exposure to and use of a new zero-emission vehicle.” GM will gain real-world knowledge from this program and says there will be benefits for electric vehicles as a whole, since it will “encourage growth in [electric vehicle charging] infrastructure that supports low- and zero-emission vehicles.”
Also, by exposing people to zero-emission vehicles through this program, GM says the cars “will foster wider acceptance of electric vehicles,” according to the petition. The ride-sharing fleet would operate in an urban area, and users would interact with it through their phones, GM said.