Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

CES 2021: GM's Zero Vision

by Roger Lanctot | 1月 20, 2021

General Motors CEO Mary Barra kicked off the annual Consumer Electronics Show this week touting GM’s virtual “Exhibit Zero” to describe the coming products and services that will define GM’s Vision Zero of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. GM intends to achieve these zero objectives by deploying its Ultium Drive electrification platform across 30 new vehicles within five years.

This is a bold vision from Barra, but it misses a more fundamentally motivating mission which is the goal of saving lives. The impressive hourlong keynote from GM, which highlighted new, sexy in-vehicle electronics, a vertical take-off-and-landing concept, self-driving cars, and delivery vehicles and bots had precious little to say about safety, collision avoidance, and saving lives.

At a time when potential car buyers have been almost completely immobilized by shuttered restaurants and entertainment venues and remote work, GM used its time to emphasize in-vehicle infotainment and personalization over the art and science behind movement itself. Strangely missing from the slick marketing messages was a spotlight for GM’s industry-leading, and driving-automation-defining Super Cruise technology.

GM presenters did mention the company’s novel Super Cruise self-driving technology and the fact that it is coming to 22 car models in the next couple years. GM also included a tail’s-end reference to its Cruise self-driving car program. But these desultory, even perfunctory, references to automated or assisted driving got short shrift in the context of “pillar-to-pillar” in-vehicle displays and a “four quadrant, suspended particle device, smart glass” roof from Cadillac.

GM missed a chance to highlight the work of GM’sWarren Tech Center engineers in addressing the complex challenge of mitigating highway fatalities. Driving today is associated with a wide range of anxieties from range anxiety in your electric vehicle to parking anxiety in any vehicle to collision anxiety in a world where 100 people in the U.S. and 3,000 people worldwide die every day in automobiles.

With the introduction of Super Cruise on the 2017 Cadillac CT-6, GM broke new ground integrating a direct driver monitoring system in the cabin with a self-driving system fusing automated lane keeping with adaptive cruise control. The revolutionary message from GM with the introduction of Super Cruise was that the car could assist your driving, but you’d still have to pay attention. In fact, if you stopped paying attention due to distraction or drowsiness, the automated system would cease assisting.

This radical concept is sufficiently monumental that it's underlying assumptions have been adopted as part of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe driving rules (WP.29) now in force for Level 3 semi-automated driving systems. Consumer Reports was similarly impressed, giving GM top marks in its assessment of all assisted driving technology available from auto makers.

The Consumer Reports endorsement of Super Cruise alone is enough to snap necks in GM’s corporate office at the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit, where decades of senior GM executives have become accustomed to written tongue lashings from CR editors along with fulsome praise for fuel efficient and more reliable Japanese vehicles. GM finally got something right, it seems!

Instead, Barra & Co. opted to highlight the shiny objects: electrification, snappy infotainment tech, and flying cars. The cheap trick of flipping the electrification switch to get the attention of show attendees and stockholders was glaringly obvious from the GM logo reboot – an obvious lipstick-on-a-pig play if there ever was one.

SOURCE: New GM logo


The announcement of plans for 30 new electric vehicles due to arrive in the next five years conveniently omitted a comprehensive plan to charge those vehicles. The arrival of EV mania at GM was also tempered by a focus on absurdly unaffordable vehicles in the form of a limited run of $112K Hummer EVs and $100K+ Cadillacs – the Celestiq and Lyriq. It doesn’t appear that sharing the Ultium Drive platform is delivering much in the way of savings for consumers.

The reality is that the Ultium Drive platform isn’t really a platform at all. It’s a packaging strategy with a variety of configurations. This packaging solution – intended to enable multiple vehicle form factors and configurations – will be running up against EV-based skateboard competitors from around the world targeting far lower price points and comparable performance. Meanwhile, Tesla Motors is avowedly contemplating turning body components into battery packs, moving beyond both platform and packaging gambits.

The lack of a charging infrastructure plan was significant and undermines the messaging associated with the BrightDrop delivery logistics offering of EV commercial vehicles and delivery trolleys – at least part of which are being developed under contract with FedEx. These electrified panel vans will no doubt require a fast charging network – regarding which not a word was spoken.

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SOURCE: "Self-Driving Vehicles in Logistics" - DHL, 2014

Worse yet, for BrightDrop, DHL defined an identical vision of EV delivery vans and autonomous trolleys six years ago. GM sought to make a splash with BrightDrop which, in the end, is a contractual manufacturing gig and not much more.

Meanwhile, GM tacked on a segment at the end of the hourlong presentation highlighting its self-driving Cruise operation. GM spun Cruise as a startup in which the company had invested, even though the operation is clearly on GM’s books to the tune of a $250M/quarter burn rate.

The Cruise segment of the presentation was notable for CEO Kyle Vogt’s clearly least-rehearsed commentary relative to the more polished presenters that preceded him. Also clear was Cruise’s ongoing reliance on Chevy Bolts and the limited mention or exposure of the Cruise Origin autonomous robotaxi, launched weeks after last year's CES event. Missing entirely from the Cruise segment was the presence of Gil West, retired chief operating officer of Delta Airlines, who was hired the week before the opening of CES to lead the launch of Cruise’s robotaxi service in San Francisco.

The Cruise segment neglected to mention the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic for robotaxi operators using vehicles designed for two pairs of passengers facing one another in an enclosed space. Robotaxis actually don’t seem to make much sense these days – to say nothing of the lack of regulatory guidance or safety standards for facing passengers in a moving vehicle lacking a driver or steering wheel.

Perhaps the saddest oversight of the entire presentation was the glossing over of the Bolt EUV set to arrive this summer from GM and equipped with Super Cruise. Presumably due to the fact that the Bolt EUV was not designed on the Ultium Drive platform it did not merit a marquis presence in the GM keynote. For me, though, it is the one car that might find a home in thousands of driveways unlike the pricier or conceptual fare on offer from GM in the CES keynote.

GM ought to be leading the charge to get the automotive industry and the economy back on the road to success. GM ought to have been making the case for auto makers to get priority over consumer electronics companies in the current battle for limited supplies of microchips which has shuttered auto plants around the world.

GM missed its chance to make the case for technology leveraged for the purpose of saving lives. Super Cruise should have been the star of CES, not cars with six-figure price points, flying fantasies, or self-driving bozotaxis. Super Cruise is the essential self-driving car technology that will simultaneously combat driver distraction while enabling semi-automated driving. Super Cruise is an example of real GM leadership. That's something we'd like to see more of.

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