Car Wars: Mary Barra Talks GM’s Future, Nvidia Takes the Wheel at CES

Xconomy New York — 

Make way for autonomous cars on the highways ahead.

That was a common theme from the auto industry at the CES technology trade show this week in Las Vegas. In years prior, carmakers tried almost too hard at CES to make their vehicles seem more hip by talking up connectivity and putting apps in cars as the so-called “ultimate mobile device.”

One innovation the car industry now sees as a potential game changer is autonomous driving.

Autonomous cars, which use sensors tied to advanced computers to navigate roadways, have been experimental, and the stuff of science fiction, for decades. Of late, Tesla Motors and Google have been testing their own prototype systems while major carmakers such as General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Audi, and Volvo have also geared up to put driverless cars on the road in the near term.

That was a central point in a keynote on Wednesday at CES by General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who was also elected as chair of the Detroit-based company early this week.

On Monday, she said, GM announced a strategic alliance with San Francisco-based ridesharing company Lyft to create a network of on-demand autonomous vehicles—with a $500 million investment through GM Ventures. Then on Tuesday, General Motors expanded a partnership with Amsterdam’s Mobileye, which develops driver assistance systems, to crowdsource maps to help enable autonomous driving. Barra foretold of rapid developments to come as uses for cars evolve. “The auto industry will change more in the next 5 to 10 years than it has in the last 50,” she said.

There was plenty more to see in autonomous driving at CES, including from Santa Clara, CA-based chipmaker Nvidia, known largely as a developer of computer graphics accelerators.

Nvidia's Drive PX2 is being eyed by several carmakers for their autonomous vehicles. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

Nvidia’s Drive PX2 is being eyed by several carmakers for their autonomous vehicles. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

Nvidia has been developing an artificial intelligence system called Drive PX2, a supercomputer the size of a lunchbox designed to be the brains for autonomous cars. The system draws upon a host of sensors to detect other vehicles, pedestrians, obstacles, road conditions, and possible hazards.

With the help of sensors, the Nvidia PX2 sees the road as data and reacts to it. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

With the help of sensors, the Nvidia PX2 sees the road as data and reacts to it. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

At CES, Nvidia announced Volvo will be the first carmaker to put the Drive PX2 computer system in the driver’s seat, with a fleet of 100 autonomous SUVs in 2017 that will specifically be used to get around Gothenburg, Sweden—Volvo’s home turf.

Over at the Ford exhibit at CES, there was similar talk of bulking up on the development of autonomous cars, and a display of some of the technology that makes such systems work.

The Velodyne sensors are mounted on the roof the Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle.(photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

The Velodyne sensors are mounted on the roof the Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle.(photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

A test model Ford Fusion Hybrid equipped with sensors from Silicon Valley-based Velodyne LiDAR was on the show floor to demonstrate how cars could map and create 3D models of their environments to navigate around. Some 30 of these test cars will be put through their paces this year.

The surroundings of the Ford Fusion Hybrid are converted into a 3D model. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

The surroundings of the Ford Fusion Hybrid are converted into a 3D model. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

There is more ahead, however, for the auto industry then letting cars drive themselves. For instance, during her keynote Barra also spoke about GM’s efforts in car sharing, fuel cell propulsion, and the company’s history in innovation outside of terrestrial vehicles. GM built a navigation system for Apollo 11 moon mission, she said, and the mobility system for a lunar rover.

But the showpiece of her keynote was the introduction of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, an all-electric car that can drive 200 miles per charge. A navigation system for the Bolt EV shows drivers routes that can help them maximize their range or find the nearest recharging stations, Barra said. The Bolt EV is also equipped with a rear backup camera streamed to the rearview mirror. “Now the mirror shows a full wide-angle view of everything behind the car with no obstructions,” she said.

Chevrolet already has a few electric and hybrid vehicles including the Volt, Spark EV, and the Malibu Hybrid. The Bolt EV is being billed as an affordable entry to this market, expected to cost about $30,000—albeit after government incentives. It can also get back on the road relatively quickly when it runs out of juice, Barra said. “The battery can charge to 80 percent of capacity in only 60 minutes,” she said. An overnight charge will bring it to 100 percent capacity.

This all comes back to the notion that cars will start functioning very differently in the real world, and not just in futuristic movies. “The way people get around is changing forever,” Barra said.

The Chevrolet Bolt EV, an all-electric car introduced at CES 2016. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

The Chevrolet Bolt EV, an all-electric car introduced at CES 2016. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)