A test ride in the self-driving Chevrolet Bolt is like going back to driver's ed. The car does indeed drive itself, but it slavishly obeys traffic rules that I forgot even existed.
General Motors Co. made the car available to media and analysts this week, giving outsiders a first-ever peek at its autonomous vehicles. Until now, only GM engineers and the staff at San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, the company's software unit, have been inside one.
The Bolt is so cautious that it might bore even a conservative driver to tears. Kyle Vogt, chief executive officer at Cruise, made it very clear that the ultra-defensive posture of the Bolt AV is by design. Self-driving cars are about reducing crashes and fatalities, above all else.
“Comfort and smoothness of ride is a distant priority after making the vehicle safe,” Vogt said. “Over the company's three-year history, only about 2 percent of the time have we considered any element of smoothness or comfort. It has been entirely about getting you there safely.”
GM showed off the car on Tuesday in San Francisco, where dense traffic, twisting streets, steep hills and abundant pedestrians present the biggest challenges to the car's robot brain. How ready is this technology? It worked fine, and GM was confident enough to put outsiders in the car on public roads in the city.
At the same time, GM stationed autonomous vehicle trainers in the front seats. One sat with hands skimming the wheel in case of emergency. He never put his hands at his sides. The other guy looked around to make sure the car's five Lidars (pulsing lasers that act like radar), 14 cameras, and 18 different radar sensors were seeing everything and that the software was responding properly.
The car didn't go faster than 25 to 30 miles per hour. In San Francisco, you rarely get to go much faster, even with a human behind the wheel. That said, GM needs to upgrade its current Lidar to a new system designed by Strobe, which it recently acquired, to improve driving speeds.
The third-generation Bolt, with 3.5-inch-tall Lidar nodes on the roof, has a sleeker look than did an earlier model that had a set of 19-inch goal posts on top. The car also has a set of sensors mounted on the side mirrors. Aside from that, it looks like a regular car.
We started to drive through the city and came up to a garbage truck. The car stopped. Its computer brain’s view of the truck was shown as a blue box on a dashboard video screen. The trash hauler wasn't moving, though there was no red light or car ahead. After a few awkward moments, the Bolt slowly slipped past.
Had I been in the driver's seat, I'd have hopped into the oncoming lane and blown past the idled truck. But this was an AV, and it lingered obediently in the right lane. That's where you're supposed to be, by law, if you're not passing. In the organic world, no one cares much about that particular law.
The car, following a pre-programmed route, eventually arrived at a road that was dividing and needed to get into the right lane to keep moving straight. It seamlessly changed lanes on its own.
What about a roundabout? I'm sorry to report that the Bolt AV entered the roundabout as an American would. Rather than blast through European-style, the car slowed to a near halt as it got to the circle, scanned its surroundings, and pumped the brakes two more times. Confident that no one like me was entering the circle, it gingerly trundled through.
When we stopped behind a food vendor's truck, the car sat and pondered when to go around it. Ten seconds went by without decision. Then the Bolt detected an oncoming car and waited five seconds for it to pass. After waiting a total of 26 seconds, the Bolt slowly moved around the truck.
Next up, a Volvo sport utility vehicle edged over to make a left turn. The driver nosed his vehicle out, and the Bolt stopped right in front of him. When the car's brain detected that the Volvo wouldn't hit us, it moved on. The human shook his head and muttered something that was probably disparaging.
The car yielded to pedestrians well before they entered a crosswalk. Even a tall cone caught the sensing system's attention, slowing the car. It moved sluggishly in the right lane and passed on a potential right turn on red. That will earn horns from plenty of human motorists.
As dull as the riding experience was, the technology is well beyond those of the Super Cruise system featured in GM's Cadillac CT6 and the Autopilot system I tried in Tesla's Model S. Those systems allow limited hands-free driving but are far from offering true autonomy.
I left the car thinking that it represents an important first step towards the self-driving future. It isn't yet fast enough for highways, and Vogt admitted that the system isn't perfect. With quicker, more predictive software, the system may be able to mimic zippier human driving. Drivers will just have to be patient.