2016 Cadillac CT6It will be difficult—if not impossible—for motorists to relinquish an active role in driving cars equipped with the semi-autonomous Super Cruise feature now being developed by General Motors, the company’s two top leaders said at a Detroit conference. When the feature arrives, sometime in 2017, it will contain components that ensure drivers remain alert and ready to control their cars.
For example, Super Cruise will contain sensors that track drivers’ eye movements. “If we don’t get those signals and feedbacks, we don’t engage,” said Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice-president. “We take the car and slow it down and call OnStar, for instance.”
In the wake of a fatal crash involving a similar semi-autonomous feature made by Tesla Motors, General Motors executives found themselves in the awkward position of highlighting the limitations of the upcoming feature rather than its functions. But given the widespread concern over Tesla’s implementation of its Autopilot, GM’s cautious decision to delay the arrival of Super Cruise has gained favor. Speaking at the Billington Global Automotive Cybersecurity Summit in Detroit last week, CEO Mary Barra and Reuss both emphasized they consider Super Cruise an advanced driver-assistance feature, not a driver replacement.
“The fundamental premise of the system is not unlike that of an autopilot system in an airplane, where you’re reducing fatigue and you’re increasing the awareness of the driver over a longer period of time,” Reuss said.
Reuss and Barra made it clear that Super Cruise differs from that other Autopilot—the semi-autonomous feature that Tesla Motors added to many of its Model S vehicles via over-the-air updates last fall. While Tesla’s system uses a camera and radar for operation, GM’s Super Cruise also will rely on lidar sensors to map its road environment. That map data will be compared with previous maps of the road to understand discrepancies, according to Reuss. Super Cruise operations will be limited to roads where that mapping has taken place. But what will Super Cruise add?
Clearly, there’s going to be development, and it’s not a technology that eliminates all incidents, but we’re definitely going to be in a safer place. — Mary Barra
GM says it will be capable of following lanes, braking, and controlling speed under certain conditions. A light on the steering wheel will indicate to drivers when the system can be engaged or when a motorist needs to retake control of the vehicle.
Both Super Cruise and Autopilot are semi-autonomous features that are seen in the industry and elsewhere as building blocks on the path toward fully autonomous vehicles, which Reuss said could be ready to hit the road in five to seven years.
Any problems with these interim features could hinder consumer acceptance of self-driving cars. In January, General Motors postponed the debut of Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6 to continue refining the feature. A spokesperson said the company still intends for Super Cruise to make its debut on the CT6, and Barra said it will launch “next year.” She said Super Cruise is a technology the company has invested “thousands of thousands of man-hours developing and validating.”
Tesla Motors markets Autopilot as a beta technology and requires drivers to agree that they maintain responsibility for the operations of their vehicles. As seen on recent YouTube videos, some drivers have instead treated Autopilot as a fully autonomous technology. Now federal investigators are probing the feature’s role in a fatal crash in Florida that killed Joshua Brown.
As that investigation continues, federal safety regulators are formulating new guidelines for autonomous deployment that might affect the future of Super Cruise, Autopilot, and any number of similar systems other competitors are developing. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last week that framework should be released by the end of the summer.
“I’m very anxious for the guidelines that are going to be coming out,” Barra said.
Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, offered a small glimpse at those guidelines last week, saying the government would not expect autonomous technology to function perfectly and that delaying the deployment of new technology, such as Super Cruise, that improves safety could result in further road fatalities. Barra agreed.