Back in April, General Motors quietly disclosed that it had plans to put together a large fleet of self-driving Bolt EVs to test in California, Arizona and Michigan. On Tuesday, GM CEO Mary Barra confirmed that’s all going forward, and that GM has produced 130 autonomous Chevy Bolt EVs at one of its assembly plants. With that, Barra made a fairly bold claim.
The vehicles will be deployed to San Francisco, Scottsdale, Arizona, and across Metro Detroit, joining a group of more than 50 current-generation autonomous Bolt EVs already being tested on the road. Automotive News reported that the company declined on Tuesday to disclose how many miles the Bolt EV fleet has driven in autonomously.
Barra said Tuesday that production of the vehicles began in January, “making GM the first—to this day—the only automotive company to assemble self-driving vehicles in a mass-production facility.”
It’s not exactly clear why GM characterized itself like this; Tesla, for instance, started putting autonomous hardware in every vehicle it makes since last October. And that’s all been happening at one of GM’s old factories; there’s no doubt about Tesla’s mass-production cred.
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A GM spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.
Whether it’s even a milestone for autonomous cars to be produced in an assembly plant is another question, too, but GM’s announcement reaffirms its ambitions for producing self-driving vehicles. Documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year showed GM had plans to roll out a fleet of 300 Bolt EVs for autonomous testing, and Cruise Automation—the GM subsidiary purchased last year by the automaker—has been busy testing the vehicles for months on public roads in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Arizona, and in Metro Detroit. And GM’s expected to rollout its semi-autonomous “Super-Cruise” feature on the new Cadillac CT6 later this year.
Maybe GM really is trying to mess with Tesla.
Update: A GM spokesperson told Jalopnik that it characterized itself as the first to mass-produce autonomous cars because it’s “leveraging our proven manufacturing quality standards and processes” and applying it to AV technology.
But it boils down to semantics—however those differences are still worth noting. GM’s calling the Bolt EV an autonomous vehicle, but when they’re on the road for tests, a driver is still in the front seat, ready to assume control of the vehicle if needed. The vehicle can be engaged in either autonomous mode or be manually operated, the spokesperson said.
That means it’s most likely considered a Level 4 vehicle on the automation scale set by the Society of Automotive Engineers. At Level 5—or full autonomy—a driver wouldn’t be needed, at all.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature qualifies as Level 2, or semi-autonomous, on the SAE scale—but again, Tesla founder Elon Musk has said that every Tesla vehicle built since last October comes equipped with the necessary hardware for full-automation. In April, Musk said his plan for producing a Level 5, fully-autonomous driving is still two years away. But, if you believe Musk when he says the cars have the necessary hardware, GM’s claim seems more like an optics move for shareholders than anything else.
It’s not a surprise for company’s to try to outdo one another, but it’s probably best not to get in a pissing match over a technology that a majority of Americans—at least for now—don’t trust.
My point is, words matter.