It might be another few months until the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is due to arrive at dealerships across the U.S., but that doesn’t mean the Chevrolet Bolt isn’t hitting the roads of the U.S. in sufficient volumes as parent company General Motors carries out those final all-important checks to makes sure that its first 200+ mile electric car is ready for the mass-market.
Most of those checks revolve around making final tweaking to the car’s handling characteristics or checking charging station compatibility along major routes like the I-5 corridor, but GM has also been using pre-production Bolt EVs as testbeds for the latest autonomous vehicle project it has been developing with help from recently-acquired Start-up Cruise Automation.
Initially, GM kept its fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EVs operating in and around the streets of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but yesterday Cruise Automation (which, despite being now owned by GM still has its own Twitter page) made a surprise announcement that it would be expanding GM’s autonomous vehicle research project with a new fleet of self-driving Bolt EVs in Scottsdale, Arizona.
— Cruise Automation (@Cruise) August 8, 2016
Before it was acquired by GM earlier this year for a reported $1 billion, Cruise Automation focused all of its R&D work — testing included — around its Silicon Valley base. There, it developed an an aftermarket autonomous limited-production product called the Cruise RP-1 for certain model year Audi A4 and S4 cars. Priced at $10,000 each the units attracted a lot of attention from investors, helping the company raise a total of $18.8 million in three funding rounds from early 2014 through November 2015.
Founded by former Kyle Vogt, co-founder of Justin.tv, SocialCam and Twitch (the two latter being acquired by Autodesk and Amazon for $50 million and $1 billion respectively) Cruise’s mission before acquisition was to develop a set of products to brought autonomous vehicle capabilities to cars which left the factory with none. A clever and unique twist on autonomous vehicle technology, the RP-1 kit — which sold out really quickly when the company announced it back in June 2014 — consisted of a roof-mounted sensor pod (containing multiple different types of sensors inside it), a set of vehicle actuators (to allow the system to control the brakes, steering wheel and accelerator) and a computer system designed to be the brains behind the brawn.
Since its acquisition by GM, Cruise has focused on developing autonomous vehicle technology for various GM vehicles, including the Bolt EV. The autonomous Bolt EVs that GM has been testing in California for the past few months represent the first wave of its work, and we’d wager a guess that the new fleet being put on the road in Arizona represent a second wave of the same.
Known for its support of high tech companies and autonomous vehicle testing, California is a logical place for any automaker to test its vehicles, but what makes Arizona so special? Aside from its large cities (with plenty of wide roads to test autonomous vehicles on), Arizona is already home to several different autonomous vehicle testing programs, including one from Google (Alphabet).
But when it comes to Arizona, there’s another reason GM’s autonomous vehicle program is being tested there: GM’s massive proving grounds in Mesa, a half-hour drive from downtown Scottsdale. Covering a massive swathe of land just off Arizona State Route 202, the test facility has long been used by GM for its hot weather testing of new cars, ensuring vehicles are ready for extremes of summer temperatures wherever they happen to be purchased.
Those familiar with the revolutionary 1996-1999 EV1 will of course recognize GM’s Arizona proving ground for another reason too: it was the final resting place of all but forty EV1 electric cars. Back in 2003 after GM successfully lobbied the California Air Resource Board to end its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, the automaker used its Mesa facility as a place to store and then ultimately crush EV1 electric cars after it refused to let its happy customers buy their cars outright at lease end.
And while the autonomous prototype Chevy Bolt EVs being tested in nearby Scottsdale will ultimately end up with the same fate (automakers are not allowed to sell pre-production vehicles to the public) we’re hopeful that the legacy of the autonomous Chevy Bolt EVs will be a far happier one.
After all, with GM planning to use autonomous vehicle technology to bring about a world where customers will be able to rent out their autonomous cars to other people when they’re not using the car themselves, that $1 billion investment in Cruise — not to mention all the money invested in autonomous vehicles — is bound to have a happier outcome than one of GM’s darkest moments, right?
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