from the johnny-cabs dept.
[...] The most important reason for GM's comeback, though, is its success in convincing investors that it is a leader not just among established carmakers, but among tech firms, too. It has rapidly accelerated from the position of an also-ran in the field of autonomous vehicles to apparent leader. A scorecard issued annually by Navigant, a consultancy, puts GM ahead of the AV pack of carmakers and tech firms, with Alphabet's Waymo in second place.
That GM is ahead of Silicon Valley's risk-takers may seem surprising. But earlier investments, which were once looked on with scepticism, seem to be paying off. Alan Batey, GM's president for North America, points to the manufacturing of mass-market long-range EVs, where the firm has a lead. The Chevy Bolt, the world's first such vehicle, has been on sale for over a year, beating Tesla's Model 3 and the new Nissan LEAF to market.
The Bolt is supposed to be the basis for an ambitious autonomous ride-sharing business. On January 12th GM announced the latest version of its Cruise AV, a Bolt-based robotaxi without a steering wheel or pedals. GM plans to use it to launch a commercial scheme in several cities, starting next year. Rival tech firms and carmakers are only running, or are planning to launch, small test projects.
When GM paid $1bn in 2016 for Cruise, an artificial-intelligence startup, many analysts wondered whether it was throwing away money. But the marriage of cutting-edge technology and large-scale manufacturing seems to be paying off. The carmaker has learned to be more nimble; Cruise has picked up how to make its fiddly technology robust enough for the open road. As a result, GM can now mass-produce self-driving cars, says Dan Ammann, second-in-command to Ms Barra. Scale will help steeply to reduce the cost of sensors, which are the key components of an AV.
The firm is being rewarded because, unlike other carmakers, it has assembled all the parts of the puzzle you need to build new transport services, says Stephanie Brinley of IHS Markit, a consultancy. But even if GM is no longer a dinosaur, risks remain. In particular, it may be too bullish in its estimate of the market for robotaxis and it may be placing too much faith in the benefits of being the first to market.
[...] Critics think that GM may have accelerated too swiftly and that it will have to endure years of losses before robotaxis take off. Even if things move fast, points out Berenberg, another bank, GM may not be the one to benefit. The main constraint in growing a ride-hailing business now is acquiring drivers. But when these are eliminated, capital will be the only limit. And that could mean huge fleets of robotaxis chasing passengers, forcing prices down. Riders may then choose a brand they recognise, such as Uber and Lyft, rather than Maven, GM's ride-hailing business.
If so, being first would confer little advantage. And yet, if carmakers do not want to accept their fate passively, they have little choice but to remodel themselves. The outsized Silverado and the sensor-packed Cruise AV show that GM has the present in hand—and that it is at least doing its best to safeguard its future.