(Source: Getty Images)
GM is taking the project seriously

General Motors Corp. (GM) gave Google Inc. (GOOG) its begrudging regards this week after hearing about the Mountain View, Calif. company's vision for autonomous vehicles.
I. GM on Google -- It's a "Real... Threat"
While it looked a bit like a Volkswagen AG (ETR:VOW) Beetle smacked with the ugly stick a few more times, Google's in-house design for an autonomous electric vehicle (EV) is turning heads based on the sophistication of its driving and collision avoidance.  Google is building a fleet of 100 of the bulbous 2-seaters to test its smart driving technology.
At an event in the Detroit, Mich. area, GM's Product Development chief, Mark Reuss was inevitably asked to weigh in on the excitement surrounding the Google fully autonomous smart car.  He did not hold back, responding:

Anybody can do anything with enough time and money.  If they set their mind to it, I have no doubt [that they will be] a very serious competitive threat.  [The car is] kind of cool [and looks sort of like a VW Beetle].

[Automation is] going to be a creep, it’s not going to be a mind-bending thing.  I don’t think you’re going to see an autonomous vehicle take over the city anytime soon

Google automated car
Google's automated car is a "threat" according to GM's Product Development chief.

GM certainly seems an authoritative voice on the topic.  
In April 2014 in the U.S. it sold over 254,000 automobiles internationally, ahead of Ford Motor Comp. (F) (210,000+) and Toyota Motor Corp. (TYO:7203) (199,000+) [source].  GM was sales king of the auto industry longer than any other company in the history of the automobile.  
From 1931 to 2007, GM sold more cars and trucks than any other automaker.  And even as it's struggled to hold back a surging Ford and to regain its lead from Toyota, GM is still seeing strong sales.  (Volkswagen was the only automaker to beat it in 2013, a bit of a surprise.)
And it's good to see such straight talk from GM and an earnest assessment of its possible future competitor.
II. The Race to a Smart Car
For years we heard lots of automakers pay lip service to the concept of autonomous driving, with some even spending a good deal of money and time investigating it.  GM was perhaps foremost in the field prior to its bankruptcy.  Over a half-decade ago, back in Jan. 2008 we road along in a modified 2008 GM Tahoe which won the DARPA's (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) 2007 Urban Challenge.

GM Darpa
GM's 2008 Chevy Tahoe, modified for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

As the car zipped around the obstacle course in sunny Las Vegas, Nev. it quickly became apparent why the vehicle won the smart car challenge -- it was pretty good at avoid collisions... really good, in fact.  As a demo, a second test driver would cut off the GM car or otherwise block its path.  In every case the GM vehicle knew what to do, performing better than many human drivers would in such a case.
But after the bankruptcy rolled around in mid-2009, the pace of development has slowed, in some regards, allowing the U.S. automaker's foes to catch up.  GM's current plans for commercialization involve a more scaled back version of the technology called "Super Cruise" which is only semi-autonomous.  
Cadillac Super Cruise
The technology will allow the user to hand off control to the vehicle during long highway drives, but otherwise will drive like a standard vehicle.  GM wrote that the technology will "use a fusion of radar, ultrasonic sensors, cameras and GPS map data, seamlessly integrated" to perform "semi-automated driving including hands-off lane following, braking and speed control under certain driving conditions."

But GM added in on a cautionary note:

The system is designed to ease the driver’s workload on freeways only, in bumper-to-bumper traffic and on long road trips; however, the driver’s attention is still required... because the system will have operational limitations based on external factors such as traffic, weather and visibility of lane markings. When reliable data is not available, such as when there are no lane markings, the system will prompt the driver to resume steering.

In other words, this smart car was only so smart.
III. GM Not Alone in Struggles Toward Full Self-Driving
The limitations echoed Ford -- currently the world's second largest automaker -- which in 2010 introduced a semi-autonomous parallel parking.  Called Active Park Assist (APA), the system provided so-called "electronic power-assisted steering" (EPAS).
In other words, it basically steered for you and tried to tell you how long to press the gas and when to brake via various beeps.  The clear issue, as I saw it during a 2011 test drive was that the technology would do nothing to stop the user from bumping a car in front of or behind it.   And by detaching the driver from part of the maneuver (steering), but not all of it (gas/braking), the maneuver almost felt more dangerous/risky to perform at times.
In my experience the system was workable, but at times seemed more frustrating than simply performing the maneuver on your own.
EPAS Second 1  EPAS Second Park 2
  EPAS Second Park 3   EPAS Second Park 4
    EPAS Second Park 5  

Toyota had a near identical system -- the parallel park system (PPS), which handled the gas and steering, but not the brake.  Toyota first introduced the system in its Lexus branded luxury models.  It also integrated smart braking technology to avoid objects in driveways, etc. via integrating millimeter wave sensors and the braking system into a collision avoidance algorithm.
Ford has been active since, working on an improved version of its lane keeping technology called Traffic Jam Assist, which mirrors GM's "Super Cruise" in providing semi-autonomous highway driving.  That technology should arrive around the same time as GM's.  In the meantime Ford has added perpendicular parking to its portfolio, courtesy of French supplier Valeo S.A. (EPA:FR).  Volkswagen had been using Valeo's Park4U system parking system since the 2011 model year [source].  
Last year Ford added one more trick, upgrading the system to be fully autonomous.  With the new system the owner could activate the parking maneuver via a key fob and the Fully Assisted Parking Aid (FAPA) would activate driving the vehicle into or out of a spots.  The feature has proven to be especially useful in preventing scratching to other drivers' doors.
IV. Google + Tesla?  Be Afraid.
What every automaker should be most fearful of is Google and Tesla teaming up.  The pair has already expressed interest in such a union; as mentioned, Larry Page is a Tesla Roadster owner, as is Google's R&D chief Sergey Brin.
Other than Google who is close to full automation?  GM, Ford, Volkswagen, and Toyota are all pursuing the safer, but less exciting route of partial automation for highway traffic.  It is unclear if any of these companies' plans involve merging onto or off of highways; it appears that the automation may solely be limited to highway driving at certain speeds.
Nissan Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7201) is taking a similar route, but it might be a bit ahead given that it not only is testing autonomous cars on a Japanese highway, but is merging on and off.  Its autonomous Leaf EV drove itself on the highway trip at speeds of 40-80 km/hour (~25-50 mph).  Nissan has set a target of 2020 for "autonomous" vehicles with Autonomous Drive; however, it is unclear whether that target includes urban/city driving.

Nissan Autonomous Drive
Nissan's Autonomous Drive LEAF EV aims for a 2020 launch. [Image Source: Nissan]

Sweden's Volvo AB (STO:VOLV-A)(STO:VOLV-B) is building fully autonomous driving systems which should merge onto and off of highways by 2017.  During my time with Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) AG (ETR:BMW) at CES 2014 I talked to some of their senior engineers and learned that they too were testing automated vehicles.  Those tests are currently confined to the track, but it's possible BMW may field a self-driving coupe in the same timeframe as Volvo.
V. Google has Mastered What Its Rivals are Still Trying to Achieve
But to be honest, GM is right.  Automakers should be worried about Google.  Because everyone -- and truly every one of them -- is far behind Google.  
Google's project began in 2010.  At the time, many believed the power of a supercomputer would be needed for city driving.  Many dismissed the project as a joke or gimmick
Two years later Google had already logged 300,000 hours miles of automated driving without an accident.  (Google's fleet consists primarily of retrofitted Lexus RX 450h and the Toyota Prius hybrids.)  Two years later, Google's fleet has logged 700,000 miles of autonomous highway travel.  It's clear that Google's highway driving technology is basically done, versus even Nissan who is still in the testing phase.

Google Lexus

Google has already moved on to finishing a far more ambitious set of algorithms -- routines for city driving.  So far the fleet has logged "thousands" of miles in city driving, leading to vital algorithm improvements.
VI. City Driving is Final Test for Google
CEO Larry Page recently said that Google has no competitors.  And it truly believes that.  In two years it did more than the rest of the automaker did in the last decade, when it comes to automated driving.
The evidence is strong that Google's new self-driving car is not intended as a full fledged design, but as a design focused on urban environment.  Evidence of that is found in its top speed -- 40 km/h (~25 mph) -- which may be sufficient for a crowded city like New York City, but not for highway driving.

Google self-driving car
[Image Source: Google]

Google is so confident in its new design that it's made the bold move of gutting the vehicle removing nearly all controls, including the brake and gas pedals and the steering wheel, something none of the traditional automakers would dare to do.  The new Google X design has two buttons -- Start and Stop.  Program the route and car does the rest.

It's slightly disconcerting and terrifying to think that the Google car's two occupants have no means of controlling the vehicle.  But when you think of it, such feelings are, statistically speaking, overconfidence.  As Google points out 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic accidents and 90 percent of those are due to human error.

From everything we've seen thus far, you're probably safer allowing Google's algorithms to steer for you.

GM, to its credit has a city-street pod car of its own it's testing -- the EN-V.  By the sound of it that vehicle is still being prototyped, though, and has yet to hit city streets.  GM is developing the curious compact at one of its research facilities in China.

The GM EN-V concept vehicle [Image Source: Autoblog Green]

So when all is said and done, it looks highly unlikely anyone will beat Google to the goal of fully automated driving from point to point.  Tesla Motors has probably the best plan -- if you can't beat them, join 'em.

VII. The Android Edge

Even if some other car company -- say GM -- manages to pull abreast of Google in the automation race, it's highly unlikely that its vehicles will ever be as effective at driving.  The reason for that is that Google is continuously mining data -- including location data -- from tens of millions of Android smartphone users across the U.S.  It's almost a given that Google is looking to use this dataset to provide predictive capabilities to its driving algorithm.   

Smartphone tracking could give Google beacons to improve its self-driving performance.
[Image Source: Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan]

In other words, Google's cars will be more fuel efficient and safer because they effectively have a beacon on a good deal of American drivers -- regardless of how new or old their car is.  No other company can claim that.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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