Can Detroit Beat Google to the Self-Driving Car?

Inside GM's fight to get to the future first.

“I like to drive cars,” says Mark Reuss, product development chief at General Motors, “so this is a little funny.”

Not funny-ha-ha, Reuss clarifies, but funny-odd. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat, with his hands on his thighs and his feet on the floor of a big Cadillac that’s driving itself around a banked oval.

Reuss is at GM’s 4,000-acre proving ground in rural Michigan, hidden from the public behind locked gates, tall trees, and security befitting a prison. The company’s been debugging its cars here since 1924. It’s a brilliant, sunny autumn afternoon—a nice day for being driven. Dozens of tests are going on, though it appears that his is the only one where no one’s holding the wheel.

Reuss is on edge. He forces a nervous laugh as the car takes itself up to 70 miles per hour. If he has any fast-twitch impulses rocketing across the synapses of his brain—Take the wheel, damn it!—he doesn’t give in.

“This is the cat’s meow,” he says.

Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 2, 2015
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 2, 2015. Subscribe now.
Source: Alamy (2); Corbis (1)

Cadillac, which was two decades old when flappers were saying things like “the cat’s meow,” will be the first GM make to come with Super Cruise, the company’s most ambitious technological foray since automatic transmission. The system isn’t fully autonomous. Pairing adaptive cruise control with lane-centering technology, it will allow drivers, or whatever they’re called in the future, to let the car take over only on the highway. It will also, if all goes according to plan, propel GM into a multibillion-dollar race for the future of human mobility.

The question is whether GM can get to the future on time. Super Cruise won’t hit the market until 2017. Elon Musk has just begun offering autopilot on his Tesla Model S. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Volvo have similar hands-free driving systems in the works. Then there’s Google, which wants to skip the half-measures and do a full-on moonshot: totally autonomous cars that, regulators willing, won’t even come with a steering wheel or gas pedal. Google’s latest prototypes are already driving themselves around Silicon Valley, where they’re known as Koala cars because of their bulbous shape, and they may be available for purchase right around the time GM’s hands-free Caddy hits showrooms.

Google, especially, has Reuss’s attention. Last year he declared it “a very serious competitive threat.” At other times, he’s been snappish: “We’re in the car business today, and they’re not,” he said over the summer. But on the GM test oval, as he rides in the Super Cruising Caddy, he’s talking peace, perhaps even alliance. “I’m not sure it’s an us-vs.-them thing,” he says. Whether or not that partnership comes to pass (they already work together on some smaller stuff), Reuss, 52 and a GM lifer, says it’s imperative that he …

Suddenly a crescent-shaped light on the steering wheel goes from green to red and the Caddy starts drifting in its lane. Reuss grabs the wheel. A test car just whooshed by on the left, and another slowed down on the right—too much traffic for Super Cruise, making it shut down.

“That’s stuff we need to just work on,” Cindy Bay, the project’s head engineer, says from the back seat.

“Yep,” Reuss says, hitting a couple of buttons to restart Super Cruise. “We need to develop it.”

“It’s like saying, ‘If I work really hard at jumping, one day I’ll just be able to fly.’ ”

That’s Chris Urmson, the technical director of Google’s car program, during a TED Talk in May. “The prevailing philosophy is that we’re going to take the driver-assistance systems that are in the vehicle today, and we’re going to incrementally make those better and better. And eventually we’ll get to this point where we have self-driving cars.” Urmson’s speech, viewed 1.4 million times at, is classic Silicon Valley disdain for Detroit.

That kind of talk annoys Reuss, who maintains that GM can disrupt with the best of them. He uses the term 14 times the afternoon of the test drive. How to pay for that disruption is the challenge. Google, deriving profits from its ubiquitous search engine, one of the most profitable businesses ever devised, has the luxury of taking a clean-sheet approach. It has a profit margin of about 22 percent and a $495 billion market capitalization—more than triple the size of GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler combined.

GM, whose profit margin is less than half of Google’s, can’t pour endless amounts of money into developing a driverless car. (Neither company will disclose what it’s actually spent on the technology.) But it has to finance its disruption somehow. In a sense, Reuss explains, the company has no choice but to be incremental, slowly seducing commuters and selling ever more cars—at fatter profits—as the technology improves.

The CT6, Cadillac’s flagship sedan, will be the first model with Super Cruise. The technology isn’t easy to spot. Hidden behind the car’s rearview mirror is a camera that identifies lane lines and objects ahead. Two short-range radars are embedded in the front bumper, and one long-range radar peeks out from behind the grille. The camera’s primary function is to keep the car centered in its lane; the radars work mostly to detect approaching objects and keep the car a set distance from traffic. All that data feeds into two computers locked in aluminum boxes tucked beneath the spare tire in the trunk. The computers analyze the sensor inputs in real time and tell the car when to accelerate, brake, and turn.

Super Cruise doesn’t have one of those spinning coffee-can things on the roof, like the ones you see on Google prototypes. Those are lidar sensors—light radar, a highly precise technology that uses lasers to read objects to the millimeter. Lidar is still expensive—about $50,000 for one unit—though Velodyne, a major supplier, has said it’s taking that price down to $8,000. GM hopes to include lidar in the next-generation Super Cruise. Google is developing its own version in-house. Its adorable Koala cars have lidar rigs affixed to the hood, looking like a button nose.

But the technological differences are really just the beginning of the disruption Google has planned. In Google’s world, you won’t just quit driving cars, you’ll also quit owning them. Forget about investing in an expensive and depreciating asset that sits idle 97 percent of every day. Fleets of autonomous vehicles will circulate through your town, pick you up when you summon one via smartphone—or smartwatch or brain implant or whatever—drop you off, and move on to the next fare.

In other words, Google doesn’t want to sell you a consumer product, but a mobility service, says Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor of artificial intelligence who ran Google’s car project for four years until 2013. “Obviously, once you get into the pure services world, that’s the end of Detroit,” he says.

Reuss lets out a staccato laugh at the prospect. “I don’t know about that,” he says. “That’s a pretty dramatic comment.” And yet he accepts the premise that car sales will dramatically diminish as personal transportation becomes more service-based. In his vision of the future, GM will play in both worlds, producing autonomous cars to be used as robo-taxis and human-controlled models for the diminishing segment of society that will still wants to drive. It’s a risky strategy of reinvention, and that’s why Reuss acknowledges GM will need partners to pull it off.

One thing is certain: If GM stays with its current car-selling model, it’ll go out of business. “Yep, we’re done,” he says of sticking to business as usual. “I like being in those kinds of situations. It’s kind of like Apollo 13.” He means the part about the resourceful astronauts fixing their broken capsule while hurtling through outer space, not the part about how they never made it to the moon.

Driverless Cars

GM has been talking about self-driving cars since its Futurama display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By the 1940s, its promotional films showed families playing cards around a table while their car drove itself. In the 1950s, GM developed a turbine-powered concept car known as the Pontiac Firebird, years before the muscle car of the same name, that could be switched to autopilot after getting the OK from a control tower.

In 2007, GM teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University to win the Darpa Urban Challenge, run by the U.S. Defense Department's research arm. GM’s heavily modified Chevy Tahoe successfully navigated a city course on its own to win a $2 million prize. The feat “made this very singular statement that automated driving is no longer science fiction,” says Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor who co-directs GM’s Autonomous Driving Research Lab at Carnegie Mellon.

Then came the Great Recession. By 2009, as GM was descending into bankruptcy, a small band of its engineers and researchers agitated for producing driverless cars. A much larger group of more cautious executives found the idea reckless, says John Capp, GM’s director of safety, who oversaw development of Super Cruise. “We were grasping for life jackets,” he recalls of GM’s struggle to survive. Pre-bankruptcy, the traditionalists would have won. But with the government bailout came new management, which was finally convinced to invest in self-driving technology. What persuaded them were the billions that GM’s foreign competitors, including Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, were committing to similar research.

And of course there was that other competitor. “There was a sense in Detroit that people at Google were going to do something foolish,” says Chris Gerdes, director of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research, who works with automakers on driverless-car research. “But there are a lot of smart folks at Google.”

If Reuss used to be dismissive about Google, he isn’t at the test track. “I love the company,” he gushes. “I love the people in it.” (This coming from a man not known for expressing much affection in the workplace: Reuss once sent an e-mail to an underling to express his displeasure after the employee used the milquetoast word “competitive” to describe GM’s models. Reuss’s subject line: “Vomit.”) GM already incorporates the Android Auto touchscreen infotainment system from Google into its dashboards. “I love working with them,” he says. “I think they feel the same way.”

He wants to take this affection to the next level. “We make cars, we know how to make cars,” he says. “They’ve got great technical capabilities. We are very interested in how those two might work together.”

Google declined to discuss whether it’s interested in teaming with GM on autonomous cars. However, co-founder Sergey Brin said in October, “We are really focused on working with partners” and added that they could include major automakers. Clearly, the courtship is in its early stages.

“One guy reached around and pulled a newspaper out of the back seat and just started reading it. He just assumed the car was going to go along forever, perfectly safe”

Super Cruise is acting up again. After a demonstration of how it can automatically slow the Caddy from 70 mph to 40 mph and remain centered in a lane, the car drifts slightly and the steering wheel light turns red. System shutdown.

The problem this time is glare from the sun, which blinded the rearview mirror camera. It’s a problem Reuss and his team have seen before.

“This will keep us very busy over the next week,” Bay pipes up from the back.

“We need to work on that,” Reuss says.

Safety comes first, of course, but if the autopilot requires the driver to take the wheel too often, then customers won’t see any benefit and won’t pay up for it. And GM is banking on Super Cruise to further boost profits, which have risen rapidly since the company emerged from bankruptcy six years ago. Reuss says GM is intent on expanding its profit margin above 10 percent, more than double what was considered healthy in the pre-bankruptcy days.

Finding the right balance between human and machine control takes a lot of work. “It’s about, how much feedback is enough without being annoying?” Reuss says. To speed things up, GM simplified the system. It will operate only on highways, so it doesn’t have to deal with crossing traffic, stoplights, or children playing along the road. The company also ditched a plan for an automatic lane-changing feature, where the driver could switch lanes at the push of a button or the car itself could even sense it needs to move over.

Early in GM’s work on Super Cruise, its consumer research showed that regular drivers became comfortable with autonomous technology surprisingly quickly. While taking a spin in a Chevy Malibu equipped with an early version of the technology, one test subject after another zoned out and found other things to do, such as texting or eating. “One guy reached around and pulled a newspaper out of the back seat and just started reading it,” says GM’s Capp. “He just assumed the car was going to go along forever, perfectly safe.”

So GM developed countermeasures to make sure drivers keep their eyes on the road and stay ready to take the wheel. For example, Super Cruise-equipped cars will have a camera nestled among the gauges behind the steering wheel that continuously scans the driver’s eyes and face. If the driver isn’t watching the highway, the seat begins vibrating. If that doesn’t get the driver’s attention, alarms sound and the steering wheel light turns from green to blue to red. If that still doesn’t do the trick, the system will slow the car down and, if necessary, bring it to a stop.

Driverless Cars

There’s nothing alarming about how long it’s taking Super Cruise to come together. The technology is hard, even by Silicon Valley standards. “We’re being especially cautious at this early stage,” Musk said in October as he introduced Tesla’s autopilot. His system can handle lane changing but requires drivers to hold the wheel at all times. None of the Koalas Google has driving on public roads are for sale. There are still many thorny issues—some technical, some ethical. For example, if a collision is unavoidable, should a driverless car be programmed to always aim for the smallest object to protect its occupant? What if that small object is a baby carriage? GM is wrestling with the same issues as it tests its self-driving Cadillac SUVs on public roads in Michigan and near Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

Reuss allows that Super Cruise is a ways off from truly autonomous driving, but it’s a big step in that direction. He unzips a valise and pulls out some internal documents, which he flashes but refuses to hand over. He says they contain GM’s road map to autonomy, starting with “Driver in charge” in 2010, progressing to “Driver mostly in charge” this year, to “Car mostly in charge” in 2020, and finally “Car in charge” in 2025.

The road map, Reuss says, will lead GM into the bright, post-car-ownership future, where transportation is a service and driving is for hobbyists. GM could provide propulsion systems that power Google Koalas, fleets of Uber taxis, or even Apple cars, should that company decide to make them. It will also produce and sell its own autonomous cars, though Reuss isn’t sure whether they’ll still be branded Chevys and Caddys. There’s plenty of time to figure all that out, he says, dismissing the prediction that driverless cars will be the death of Detroit. “If it were going to switch overnight, maybe that would happen,” he says, slipping his secret documents back into his valise. “But it’s not gonna switch over overnight.”

A big truck suddenly passes the Caddy on the left, while another vehicle stops on the shoulder. This time, Super Cruise handles the situation and doesn’t shut down.

“Did you see that?” Bay asks from the back.

“It handled it all,” Reuss says proudly.

As soon as those words are out of his mouth, the Caddy starts drifting again.

“This is not lane centering,” he says.

“It disengaged,” Bay says.

Reuss, squinting into the sun, punches the buttons on the steering wheel.

“We’ve got some time,” he says, and carefully removes his hands from the wheel as Super Cruise resumes control. “We’re in not too bad a place.”

—With Peter Waldman

A timeline of the driverless past...

  • 1939

    GM’s Futurama exhibit promises an automated highway system.

  • 1957

    Jack Kerouac publishes On the Road.

  • 1958

    Disney’s Magic Highway USA TV special imagines a future in which automated vehicles drive along colored highway lanes, directed by punch cards.

  • 1967

    Cruise control is introduced to the U.S. market.

  • 1988

    Researchers at Carnegie Mellon outfit a Chevy van with a laser range finder and a camera, allowing it to drive a preprogrammed path on its own.

  • 1995

    Carnegie Mellon’s NavLab 5 drives across the country ­steering autonomously 98 percent of the time. Humans control the throttle and brakes.

  • 1998

    Google is founded.

  • 1999

    Autonomous cruise control, which maintains safe distances in traffic, is introduced.

  • 2004

    Darpa’s first Grand Challenge asks teams to develop a fully autonomous vehicle capable of a 150-mile off-road race. The best competitor completes fewer than 8 miles of the course.

  • 2007

    In Darpa’s third Grand Challenge, vehicles race through a 60-mile urban course while obeying traffic laws. The winning team is from Carnegie Mellon and GM.

  • 2011

    Nevada becomes the first state to pass a law allowing ­autonomous vehicles.

  • 2015

    Elon Musk offers autopilot on the Tesla Model S.

...and the future

  • 2017

    GM introduces Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6 Sedan.1

  • 2017

    Google releases self-driving cars without a steering wheel or gas pedal. 1

  • 2017

    Autonomous vehicle sales, portion of all vehicle sales 2

  • 2020

    AVs are adopted in farming and mining. Excavators, forklifts, and other construction and warehouse vehicles soon follow. 3

  • 2020

    People employed as drivers begin to lose their jobs. 4

  • 2025

    Fully autonomous cars are available to the general consumer for an additional $10,000. 5

  • 2025

    Musk arrives on Mars. 7

  • 2025

    Survey from 2014: How would you use your time in an autonomous vehicle? 6

  • 2030

    Driverless technology takes over taxi and car-sharing fleets. 2

  • 2035

    AVs reduce traffic congestion and make smaller and lighter vehicles ­possible as roads become safer—resulting in fuel economy gains. 4

  • 2035

    The need for parking declines by more than 5.7 billion square meters. 3

  • 2040

    Cheap ­autonomous vehicles go on sale, making them affordable to lower-income people and reducing the use of public transportation. 4

  • 2040

    Good news/bad news: AVs free up 50 minutes of ­productive time a day, but the easier trip encourages longer commutes and more sprawl. 2, 4

  • 2045

    The majority of vehicle traffic is autonomous. More complex traffic patterns lead to ­restrictions on human-driven vehicles. 2

  • 2050

    Most peak urban traffic is autonomous, allowing for narrower lanes and reducing congestion. 2

  • 2050

    Platooning AVs can increase lane capacity by 500 percent. 4

  • 2050

    Vehicle crashes decline as much as 90 percent from 2012 rates, saving $190 billion and more than 30,000 lives a year. 3,8

  • 2055

    As crashes decrease, liability shifts from drivers to automakers, and insurance is built into car costs. 4

  • 2060

    Autonomous vehicles become mandatory. 2