Alright, all you Teslaholics. Settle down. We all know that every Tesla built since October 2016 is capable of full Level 5 self driving operation. But that hasn’t stopped Cruise Automation, the San Francisco based autonomous car startup purchased outright by General Motors last year, from claiming it has the world’s first production ready self driving car. How can they make such an outrageous claim? Read on.
The car Cruise Automoation is crowing about is a modified version of the Chevy Bolt. Last week, its CEO Kyle Vogt told the press, “Today, we’re unveiling the world’s first mass-producible car designed to operate without a driver. This isn’t just a concept design — it has airbags, crumple zones, and comfortable seats. It’s assembled in a high volume assembly plant capable of producing 100,000’s of vehicles per year, and we’d like to keep that plant busy.”
What does “production ready” mean? According to Cruise, it means the third generation Autonomous Chevrolet Bolt has all of the hardware and sensors needed for full autonomy but can be built on a conventional General Motors assembly line using The General’s standard mass production techniques.
Doug Park, GM vice president for autonomous technology, says the autonomous car requires changes to the electrical system, redundant steering and braking systems, plus the installation of additional sensors and different safety systems. For an idea of the amount of new pieces needed to make the cars capable of driving themselves, see the illustration below.
Previous iterations of the self driving Bolt were hand built after the the normal production process was complete. That meant the company spent most of its time tracking down electrical gremlins and making repairs instead of accumulating test miles. “Hand building a few hundred complex cars is tortuous and expensive, but it’s technically possible. People have done it. But things start to fall apart beyond that,” Vogt says.
“Achieving massive scale with a low defect rate and high reliability is ridiculously hard,” he adds, echoing what Elon Musk has said about auto manufacturing. “Cars are big, heavy, and have tens of thousands of parts. So you really need a well-run assembly plant to build something that works, such as the billion dollar plant we’re using in Lake Orion.
The complexity of modern automobiles is something Tesla is working hard to address. The new Model 3 has far more parts than the Model S or Model X and the upcoming Model Y will have fewer still. It’s all part of Tesla’s drive to simplify the manufacturing process.
Vogt goes on to say that just in time production has also sped up development of the car. The current model is the third in only 14 months, due largely to the ability to observe a problem in the field and implement an in-plant fix the same day.
Current regulations still require a human driver behind the wheel, but once the software and regulations catch up, Cruise says it is ready for to begin production of driverless car. It anticipates sales to ride hailing and ride sharing fleets first with sales to individual consumers following shortly thereafter.
Cruise may have made great strides in creating a production ready self driving car, but it still has a long way to go before it makes one that is visually appealing. Tesla deserves lots of credit for integrating its autonomous driving systems seamlessly into its cars, so they don’t look like refugees from the Lost In Space sound stage.