Steering wheel superfluous?

You won't find a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or foot brake in the self-driving car visions from GM and Ford. Will cars without human controls soon be rolling along the roads?

Steering wheel? Brake pedal? Sun visor for the driver? Other controls that are only useful for human drivers? You won't find them in the GM Cruise Origin. Instead, the Cruise Origin has subway-like doors - making it immediately clear for which target group it was designed: Ride-sharing services. Four to six people can take a seat in the futuristic-looking shuttle - and that may soon be the case.

Ford and GM want special permits

That's because General Motors and its U.S. competitor Ford have submitted two separate applications to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for special permits to operate a limited number of autonomous cars.

According to the application, the two automakers plan to deploy up to 2500 vehicles per year for ride-sharing and delivery services. That is exactly the maximum limit permitted by law for fully autonomous vehicles in the United States.

The driver as an "unacceptable safety risk"

In this context, the two applications impressively reflect the new role of humans in the brave new world of self-driving cars. Ford, for example, stated in its application to NHTSA: active driving controls would pose an "unacceptable safety risk."

In this view, humans are no longer the "fallback option" that intervenes to save the day when technology has screwed up (again). On the contrary, humans themselves become a safety risk.

No sale of self-driving cars to private customers

Consumers who can live with such a view and hope that they will soon be able to buy such a vehicle themselves, for example to relax while reading or taking a nap on the way to work, or to take their children horseback riding or swimming, will be disappointed. Neither manufacturer is seeking approval to sell self-driving vehicles to private customers, the applications say.

In fact, no manufacturer in the world has yet announced a fixed date from which it intends to sell highly automated cars. After all, this is only worthwhile once autonomous driving is permitted in large parts of the world.

Moreover, the acquisition costs are likely to be enormous, as sensors and computers make self-driving cars significantly more expensive. The areas of application envisaged by GM and Ford, such as ride-sharing, ride-hailing and parcel delivery, make more sense, as the costs can be recouped more quickly. Estimates suggest that driverless cabs could become widespread between 2030 and 2040.

That's how important Cruise is for GM

As great as the uncertainties are, so are the hopes that the two automotive companies have for their self-driving car visions. For General Motors (GM), whose Cruise division had most recently focused on getting its robotaxi business up and running and generating revenue, the Cruise Origin is the next logical step, at any rate.

Last year, GM CEO Mary Barra announced an ambitious plan under which the tradition-steeped Detroit-based carmaker plans to double its sales to $280 billion by 2030. Of the projected sales increases, Cruise alone is expected to account for about $50 billion.

GM plans to spend $35 billion over the next four years to develop battery electric and autonomous cars. Estimates are that the global market for autonomous driving is likely to more than double from 2021 to 2025, to more than $50 billion by then.

German law regulates autonomous driving up to "Level 4

In Germany, meanwhile, driverless vehicles like the GM Cruise could only be used locally. That's according to the "Law on Autonomous Driving." According to it, so-called Level 4 vehicles are only permitted on fixed routes and previously approved operating areas. These include shuttle services and passenger and freight transport on the first or last mile, as well as fully automated parking.

In addition, a human must be permanently in charge of technical supervision, such as a robot cab employee in a monitoring room. So, at least from the specific German legal perspective, humans will not be completely superfluous in self-driving cars.