GM wants to remove the steering wheel from its autonomous cars

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GM wants to remove steering wheels from its self-driving cars.
Image: GM

Ready or not, the days of self-driving cars are here to stay. Companies all over the world are testing the technology and more trial programs are making their way into major urban areas. One thing that these tests have in common is the necessity of having a backup driver—a human that rides along and can take control in case something goes poorly.

However, General Motors (GM) is ready to move things to the next stage. The carmaker just requested authorization to ditch the steering wheel in its autonomous cars. Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in talks with GM to determine the legality of the situation.

Times of Change

When laws were first put into place stating that autonomous cars need to have safety features like a steering wheel and brake pedal the technology was merely science fiction. Now, years later, it is very real. Companies including Tesla, GM, Waymo, and Ford (among others) have made significant advancements in the world of automated vehicles.

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Considering that these cars are, in many instances, capable of operating on their own, GM’s request isn’t surprising. In fact, it was only a matter of time until a carmaker requested to remove the steering wheel in favor of more space for other features.

GM is currently seeking permission to test this idea with a limited number of self-driving cars. They will lack all forms of manual control, leaving the driving solely in the “hands” of the vehicle’s onboard computer.

A video from GM depicting its Cruise self-driving car shows what this might look like.

The carmaker first announced its idea for a steering wheel-less car back in 2018. At the time, the request seemed ludicrous. Now, it appears that officials from the NHTSA are slowly coming around to the idea.

Acting administrator James Owens said, “I expect we’re going to be able to move forward with these petitions soon—as soon as we can.” He went on to confirm that the agency will “definitely” make a decision sometime in 2020.

Industry First

Should the NHTSA rule that GM may remove the steering wheel from its autonomous cars, the move would be a major milestone for the industry. However, GM isn’t the only one in pursuit of this milestone.

Self-driving vehicle startup Waymo is also seeking the NHTSA’s blessing to remove the steering wheel from its cars. It said during its request, “NHTSA should move promptly to remove barriers while ensuring safety.”

For self-driving cars, safety is a huge concern. People are already wary about vehicles driving themselves and sharing the roads with human drivers. Knowing that there is no human backup only adds to that fear. Considering that companies pursuing self-driving technology are still experiencing major setbacks, the time might not be right just yet.

Still, the decision to eliminate steering wheels will come one day. Perhaps it is coming sooner than later. Regardless of which way it goes, the NHTSA’s pending ruling will radically affect how the self-driving car industry moves forward in 2020 and beyond.

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