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GM puts pieces in place for self-driving taxis in San Francisco

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017, file photo, a self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EV that is in Gener
A self-driving Chevrolet Bolt in General Motors’ autonomous vehicle development program is displayed in 2017.
(Jose Juarez / Detroit News)
Bloomberg

General Motors Co. has created its own ride-hailing platform and quietly built one of the largest charging stations in the United States to get its Cruise self-driving car unit ready to enter the robo-taxi business next year.

Cruise has installed 18 fast chargers in a parking facility near San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the well-trafficked boulevard along the city’s eastern shoreline where Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. have busy drivers. And GM’s self-driving car unit has been testing its own Cruise Anywhere ride-hailing app and fleet-management system, said people familiar with the matter.

The largest U.S. automaker has long planned to start a ride-hailing business using self-driving cars by 2019, but it hasn’t said where the service would start or whether it would work with a partner. These latest moves show that San Francisco is where GM is assembling the pieces to launch its rival to Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo next year if GM decides against working with an established livery app such as Uber or Lyft.

“It’s an indication that Cruise is getting ready to commercialize autonomous ride-hailing services for the public, and it will be in San Francisco,” said Grayson Brulte, co-founder of autonomy consulting firm Brulte & Co. “I imagine they would want to own and operate the service.”

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A GM spokesman said only that the Detroit automaker is still working toward commercializing its self-driving car service and that the company hasn’t decided whether to own the business or find partners. He declined to comment on the location.

Building skills

What’s clear is that GM is building the resources to manage both the cars and the interface with consumers. Its ride-sharing platform could be used on its own or be tailored to interface with a partner, one person said.

Cruise has emerged as one of Chief Executive Mary Barra’s top initiatives since GM acquired it in 2016. The business got a big boost in late May when Japan’s Softbank Vision Fund agreed to buy a 19.6% stake in Cruise for $2.25 billion — more than half of which is contingent on having autonomous vehicles prepared for commercial use.

The automaker also is doing some early exploration into whether a tracking stock or an initial public offering would make sense once the business is established, people familiar with the matter said in June.

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GM’s fast chargers are near the Embarcadero because it’s a popular location for ride-hailing services. The site would help Cruise quickly recharge its self-driving cars, which are heavily modified Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles.

Business models

In addition to Cruise, GM has been testing new business models beyond traditional automaking. Its Maven car-sharing unit rents Bolts to Lyft and Uber drivers, helping the company learn to use electric vehicles for business fleets, said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst with Navigant Research.

“We can expect to see more of this as GM launches automated mobility services,” Abuelsamid said.

GM invested $500 million in Lyft in January 2016. Dan Ammann, the automaker’s president, sat on Lyft’s board until June.

Most charging stations have a handful of stalls for cars, making GM’s San Francisco site one of the bigger banks in the country, Abuelsamid said. The largest in the United States is Tesla Inc.’s station in Kettleman City, Calif., with 40 chargers, said Steve Loveday, a writer and editor with InsideEVs.com, a website covering the electric car market. Tesla has a few others with more than 20 ports, he said.

Regulatory hurdles

GM has been working with California to get rules in place to facilitate its commercialization pilot. In May, the California Public Utilities Commission cleared the way for companies such as Cruise to test self-driving vehicles with the public, but they rejected the request to let companies bill people for such rides. Cruise is still seeking approval to do so, said one person.

While most autonomous vehicles, such as those being tested by Uber, have human monitors on board, GM has said it plans to launch its pilot using a version of its Cruise AV with no steering wheel or pedals if it feels the car is safe for public use. That plan also depends on California regulations allowing the service to run without a safety driver, the company said.

Cruise also is hiring for some key positions. On its website, the unit lists an opening for a head of business operations who would help develop GM’s commercialization strategy for self-driving cars. Cruise also is recruiting for several fleet-management jobs.

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The first program will start late next year. GM will gauge progress and look to expand if it’s successful.

“Barra is trying to transform GM from car company to mobility services company,” Brulte said. “She’s building her legacy.”

Welch, Bergen and Buhayar write for Bloomberg.


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