GM, Ford, BAE Systems Up the Self-Driving Ante with New Advances

Things are moving quickly in the mobility sector as the race to develop autonomous vehicle technologies revs up. This week brought a spate of mobility news from GM and Cruise, Ford, BAE, and even the federal government. Read on for details.

—The Detroit News published a detailed report this week regarding Ford’s Silicon Valley lab, which the automaker established in 2015 to oversee the development of autonomous technologies and build relationships with tech industry “thought leaders.” The company envisions it as a sort of cross between a tech startup and a transportation and design think tank.

According to the News, the lab has become the nerve center carrying out the vision of new CEO Jim Hackett.

Jonah Houston, creative director of Ford’s partnership with design firm Ideo, told the News that Ford is in the middle of a transition from “making cars to providing mobility. Hopefully the way in which we work, we start to change some of how the rest of Ford thinks about how to approach those challenges.”

Houston and the Ideo team have a long relationship with Hackett. When Hackett was leading Steelcase prior to coming on board at Ford, he hired Ideo to help modernize operations. Now, Ideo hopes to bring “human-centered design” into the equation as Ford fleshes out its mobility offerings.

“We helped Jim transform Steelcase from a hardware manufacturer to a company that supports work,” Houston said. “We’ve kind of been through this rodeo once before, but obviously the scale is absurdly larger.”

Although these kinds of alliances between car companies and Silicon Valley are becoming commonplace as a way to cultivate talent and outside innovation in the age of mobility, the article offers a closer look at how one of these partnerships is operating.

“West Coast operations won’t guarantee innovation,” the News notes, “but planting flags here signals a fundamental change in the industry.”

Hackett plans to outline Ford’s future strategy to union members, investors, and employees over the next month.

—In other Silicon Valley-automaker partnership news, Axios this week reported on the efforts of GM and Cruise Automation, a Bay Area startup that GM reportedly paid more than $500 million to acquire last year.

At the time of acquisition, GM said Cruise would continue to operate independently within its mobility arm. According to Axios, Cruise now has a “self-driving car model” that is ready for mass production. Based on GM’s Bolt electric vehicle and called Generation 3, the new car “has Cruise’s latest iteration of sensors, self-driving software, and improvements to its interior.”

Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous technology, told Axios the cars will be assembled at the company’s manufacturing facility in Lake Orion, MI. Fifty of the cars have already been manufactured, though GM declined to specify a timeline for deployment.

Parks said the Generation 3 model will be used first in ride-hailing applications—Lyft is a GM partner—but may be made available to consumers at a later date.

Kyle Vogt, founder and CEO of Cruise Automation, published a post on Medium this week titled “How we built the first self-driving car (really),” which highlights what has gone into developing the Generation 3 so far.

—Cars aren’t the only vehicles being automated. According to an article in today’s Daily Mail, defense contractor BAE Systems, based in Sterling Heights, MI, recently unveiled driverless mini-tanks that could operate on the battlefield alongside soldiers and other unmanned aerial and ground vehicles.

Codenamed Ironclad, the armored autonomous tanks run on rubber caterpillar tracks and “will be equipped with ‘friend or foe’ tracking software to avoid friendly fire and keep soldiers out of harm’s way.” The tanks currently operate via wireless control with a range of up to 50 km, and BAE plans to make them fully autonomous in the future.

There is no set date for deployment, but BAE technologist John Puddy told the Daily Mail  that “the U.S. Marine Corps has said it wants to have an autonomous tank in the next five years, so this could start happening very quickly.”

—The U.S. government has released updated safety guidelines for the operation of autonomous vehicles. Coinciding with the passage of the SELF DRIVE Act last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation have published “Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety 2.0.”

Building on previous policies and incorporating the latest feedback, the guidelines call for “industry, state and local governments, safety and mobility advocates, and the public to lay the path for the deployment of automated vehicles and technologies,” according to a press release. They’re also intended to clarify the government’s role and make the policies governing the development of autonomous vehicles more flexible.

Federal guidance on self-driving technologies is expected to be ongoing as the industry evolves. The press release states that “A Vision for Safety 3.0” is already in the planning stages.

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