General Motors aims to launch a public ride-sharing service across several cities that uses fully self-driving cars by 2019, potentially becoming the first traditional carmaker to deploy autonomous technology at scale in the real world. Describing self-driving cars as “the biggest thing since the internet”, the company said it expected to make profit offering rides to the public for as little as $1 a mile. Carmakers are racing to develop self-driving cars to use in fleets of robo-taxis in order to tap into a potentially lucrative new market and gain first-mover advantage over rivals in an industry that McKinsey says will be worth $1.5tn by 2030.

But companies face stiff questions over how to make profits from such a cost-conscious service, which also sees them move beyond their traditional skills by running a network that matches customer demand with available cars, and is likely to see carmakers themselves assume significant costs such as vehicle depreciation. GM said it had not yet decided whether to offer its own service or use a partner such as Lyft, the ride-booking app in which GM invested $500m during 2015. In setting a 2019 start date for its service, GM has claimed a lead over some of its closest competitors. The date is two years before arch-rival Ford intends to bring a self-driving car to market, and the same year that Uber will begin buying vehicles with self-driving potential from Volvo Cars to use in its own on-demand service.