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GM President: Driverless cars ‘a win in terms of safety’

General Motors President Dan Ammann at the 2017 Chicago Auto Show on Thursday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chicago motorists could soon find themselves sitting in traffic next to a driverless car if General Motors’ vision evolves as planned.

“We think there’s a real opportunity (for self-driving vehicles) — particularly beginning in a city environment,” GM President Dan Ammann told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview during media day at the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place.

As Ammann pictures it, a Chicagoan need only step outside of the house, step into a waiting self-driving smart car and get to a destination while catching up on email and other Internet-enabled chores.

“It’s a win in terms of safety, convenience, low cost and less hassle,” said Ammann, a New Zealand native and former Wall Street financial adviser who helped take GM public in 2010 after the U.S. government sunk $49.5 billion into the automaker to keep it from failing.

He said GM is awaiting the state Legislature’s approval before it can consider testing self-driving cars here, as it does already in California, Arizona and in the Detroit area. Sponsors of legislation to accomplish that include state Sens. Martin A. Sandoval, D-Cicero; Don Harmon, D-Oak Park; and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, as well as state Reps. Michael Zalewski, D-Summit, and Tom Demmer, R-Rochelle.

Yet even without the legislation, GM has introduced in Chicago its Maven car-sharing service, which is envisioned as eventually operating with driverless cars for hire, and Express Drive, which lets drivers for GM’s partner Lyft rent a car at a subsidized rate.

The rental program is GM’s entry into developing a network that will eventually include driverless cars. Ammann declined to speculate on exactly when the driverless cars would be deployed.

Also on the cutting edge for GM is the fully electric Chevy Bolt EV 2017, with a 238-mile range before re-charging that Ammann says he believes should ease driver anxiety.

TALKING WITH TRUMP ‘AT MANY LEVELS’

Ammann gave few details about how General Motors is dealing with President Trump, whose proposed 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports would hit the automaker’s light-truck manufacturing hardest.

He said GM Officials are talking with the Trump administration ‘at many levels’ to see that any Mexican-import tariff or corporate tax changes are based on detailed research and information.

“We’re seeing people [in the Trump administration] want to make good decisions, understand how things work and realize what the impact of those decisions would be,” he said.

GM CEO Mary Barra serves on a Strategic and Policy Forum that advises Trump on economic issues and jobs growth.

Ammann said it’s too early to know what kind of changes Trump might propose in corporate taxes or how corporate cash holdings overseas are treated, or whether General Motors would change how or where it sources the steel, aluminum, magnesium and other materials that go into making its vehicles.

Beyond any potential change in sourcing a car’s insides, Ammann, who drives a Camaro ZL1 650-horsepower sportscar, still hopes to impress people who love to drive to get work done instead.

“If I’m stuck in traffic, getting frustrated and yelling at the guy in the car in front of me, it depends a lot on the use case,” he said. “Do people still want to have a sports car, a performance car, if it’s about the commute and doing (the commute) more efficiently?”