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GM’s Mary Barra stands by Cruise’s cautious strategy amid Tesla’s full self-driving push

(Credit: GM Cruise)

A recent interview with GM CEO Mary Barra from Axios has provided some of the executive’s insights about full self-driving solutions, competition from Tesla, and the Detroit-based company’s strategy for the deployment of its autonomous driving tech. Barra proved conservative, emphasizing that GM will not deploy its full self-driving suite until it is safer than a human driver.

The emergence of full self-driving technologies is all but inevitable at this point, with companies such as Waymo and electric car makers such as Tesla actively pursuing the development and refinement of autonomous driving solutions. Among the industry’s players, Tesla appears to have the momentum, as the company has the largest amount of real-world driving data gathered from hundreds of thousands of vehicles currently on the road. Augmented by the rollout of Tesla’s custom self-driving computer, Elon Musk has been optimistic with the company’s full self-driving rollout plans. Musk has stated that the company’s FSD suite will be “feature complete” by the end of 2019, and that it will have around a million vehicles capable of being used as autonomous “robotaxis” next year.

When asked by the publication about the competition from Tesla and if it is essential for a company to be the first to deploy an autonomous driving system, the GM CEO response was cautious. “We want to be safe. And so that’s what’s motivating us. We understand this is life-changing technology,” Barra said, later adding that “there are so many different ways that we can improve our customers’ lives by having this technology, not only from a safety, but from a productivity (standpoint), what they can do. But what they do, we want to make sure they do safely.”

Barra’s rather conservative statements in her recent interview feature a rather different tone than her previous forecasts for GM’s full self-driving solutions. Speaking at the Dealbook conference last November, Barra stated that GM was on schedule to deploy its full self-driving technology in 2019. “We’re on track, with our rate of learning, to be able to do that next year,” she said. During her segment, Barra noted that GM had a strategy to show that its vehicles are safer than human drivers. She also mentioned that GM Cruise’s autonomous cars were already capable of running safely at around 30 mph, though the service was limited to a small area.

GM eventually softened its stance on its 2019 target release. In a statement to The Detroit News in April, GM noted that Cruise’s driverless taxi service would be “gated by safety” when it goes get deployed. A report from The Information published this June also suggested that in April, GM Cruise’s full self-driving technology experienced a massive failure in the presence of Honda Motor CEO Takahiro Hachigo, a major investor in the company. During the demo, the vehicle’s autonomous driving system reportedly stopped, forcing the car’s backup driver to take control. The vehicle then refused to reactivate, forcing the Honda CEO to wait until he was picked up by an operational GM Cruise autonomous car.

Amidst these reports, Barra did not commit to a launch date for the company’s driverless vehicle service. Nevertheless, in her Axios interview, Barra stated that she does not regret the company’s aggressive 2019 target. “It’s a rallying cry. And I think it’s been motivational,” she said.

While GM Cruise might have less real-world miles compared to Tesla and Waymo, the self-driving unit of the Detroit-based carmaker has attracted a notable number of investors nonetheless. In its latest fundraising round alone, GM Cruise was valued at $19 billion on its own. That’s quite impressive, considering the company’s progress with its technology so far. Tesla, on the other hand, is valued at $39 billion as of writing, and that covers the company’s electric vehicle and energy storage business, as well as its full self-driving technology. This was addressed in a previous note from Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas, who noted that TSLA investors are “undervaluing” the company’s autonomous driving systems. “We believe investors underappreciate/undervalue Tesla’s Autonomy business. Many investors to whom we speak do not explicitly include Tesla’s Autonomy business in their valuation of the company,” Jonas said.

GM’s Mary Barra stands by Cruise’s cautious strategy amid Tesla’s full self-driving push
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