The advent of self-driving cars, the subject of so much fanfare over the last few years from automakers and technology companies, may be just around the corner — at least according to General Motors.
On Friday, G.M. submitted a petition to the United States Department of Transportation seeking permission to begin operating fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels or pedals — in a commercial ride-hailing service next year.
What’s more, the company said the vehicle, the Cruise AV, could be put into production on a standard assembly line once approval was granted by the federal government and states where the cars would operate.
Self-driving technology “is only going to have a big impact if we can deploy it at large scale,” G.M.’s chief financial officer, Dan Ammann, said in an interview. “We intend to launch a commercial ride-share service at commercial scale in 2019. That will begin in one city and scale up in that city and move to other cities after that.”
The cars would most likely be used initially in a ride service created by G.M., rather than in a service run by an established company like Uber or Lyft, Mr. Ammann said.
If approved, the Cruise AVs would probably appear first in San Francisco or Scottsdale, Ariz., where G.M.’s self-driving subsidiary, Cruise Automation, is conducting tests. In San Francisco, the division has set up a ride-hailing service using about 50 Cruise AVs, although the cars are available only for some of its 250 employees, not public customers.
The Cruise AV is a version of the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt. Mr. Ammann said it was reasonable to assume that mass production of the self-driving model would take place at a factory in Orion Township, Mich., that already makes Cruise AV prototypes and the Bolt, though he said there were no firm plans.
With its announcement, G.M. appears to have a jump in the race to field self-driving cars. Ford Motor is also developing a car with no steering wheel or pedals, but has said it won’t go into mass production until 2021.
The Cruise AV is a four-passenger vehicle with an array of radar, cameras and laser sensors that are clustered on its roof and allow the car to navigate city streets and recognize vehicles, pedestrians, intersections and other obstacles. Since it does not have a steering wheel, it has two passenger seats in front and a center console with a display screen and a few buttons and knobs for audio and climate control.
G.M.’s petition calls for producing up to 2,500 Cruise AVs for use in commercial ride fleets.
“Mass production and government regulation appear to be within General Motors’ grasp,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, an automotive data firm. “If government approval is granted, and G.M. begins providing autonomous taxi service to end users in multiple markets, we’ll officially be living in a world of self-driving cars.”
Approval from the Transportation Department is expected to take several months, and then G.M. would need local clearance before it could provide rides in Cruise AVs to the public. Mr. Ammann said it was not clear how the department’s main auto-safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would evaluate G.M.’s petition, and whether the agency would test the vehicles itself.
The safety agency said Friday that it would give G.M.’s petition “careful consideration.”
Local approval will depend on each state’s regulations, Mr. Ammann said. Michigan, for example, already allows cars with no steering wheels to operate on public roads. Other states would need to decide how to treat driverless cars.
Industry analysts say automakers and technology companies could generate billions of dollars in revenue and profit by selling or leasing self-driving cars to ride services, taxi fleets and delivery companies. Ford said this week that it would work with Domino’s Pizza and a start-up delivery company, Postmates, to use its autonomous prototypes in limited commercial tests this year.
Waymo, the autonomous-vehicle company spun out of Google, is testing its own fully autonomous cars in Arizona and California. Lyft and a technology start-up called Nutonomy recently began testing self-driving cars in Boston. Uber is running a pilot program in Pittsburgh.
Tesla, G.M., Audi and other automakers are also developing driver-assistance systems that take over for drivers in certain conditions, such as cruising along a divided highway. Those technologies, however, require drivers to remain alert and are considered years away from becoming fully autonomous systems.
G.M. is convinced that self-driving cars can play a significant role in reducing deaths and injuries from auto crashes. Traffic accidents kill more than 35,000 people a year, and 95 percent result from driver errors. Ride services with self-driving cars could also make it easier to get around without owning or renting a car — and producing those cars would help G.M. weather a shift away from individual ownership.
“Ultimately we see a very big business opportunity around this,” Mr. Ammann said.
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