A Chicken in Every Pot and A Robot Car In Every Garage: GM Plans to Roll “Super Cruise” Driver Aid Out Across Entire Vehicle Lineup

Trickle-down may be controversial in economics and politics, but it is an established fact in the automotive world.  Antilock brakes and airbags debuted on high-end luxury cars in the 1980s before making their way to mass-market vehicles.  Other technologies have followed a similar trajectory.  Turbocharging was once rare enough that the single word “Turbo” became the iconic apex of Porsche’s storied 911, but these days it’s used on anything and everything, from Ferraris to Ford Fiestas.

The latest example of automotive trickle-down is GM’s suite of semi-autonomous driving aids, which the company has dubbed “Super Cruise.”  The technology is currently only available on the Cadillac CT6, but at the Intelligent Transportation Society conference in Detroit last week GM announced that Super Cruise will be available in every Cadillac by 2020, and that it will spread to the entire GM lineup sometime thereafter.  

Super Cruise does not provide fully autonomous driving.  Instead, it is pitched as a driving aid that is designed to reduce driver fatigue, but which still requires the human operator to maintain awareness of the environment and be ready to take over at any time.  To that end, one of the sensors that Super Cruise adds to the car is a video camera aimed at the driver; if the driver ceases paying attention, the system automatically cuts off.  The Super Cruise system is also only available on limited access, divided highways, a restriction that is enforced by mapping data and geo-fencing.  Despite—or maybe because of—these limitations, Super Cruise has earned plaudits from reviewers as being among the best of the semi-autonomous driving aids currently available.  The intentional niche functionality of Super Cruise means that it does not have to deal with the same variety of environmental factors as Tesla’s better-known Autopilot—nor does it have to live up to erroneous expectations of being fully “self-driving.”

As Scott Delacourt blogged earlier last week, GM also announced at the ITS conference that it planned to begin offering V2X (or “vehicle to everything”) communication in a “high volume Cadillac crossover” by 2023.  The company currently offers V2V ("vehicle to vehicle”) communication in the CTS sedan; the V2X system represents an expansion that will allow cars to exchange information not just with other cars, but also with smart infrastructure. 

While it is a leader in V2V and V2X deployment, GM overall appears to be taking a deliberately conservative approach to marketing its self-driving capabilities.  Others may be more aggressive; Tesla, for example, offers a system that is technically no more capable than GM’s, but is widely misunderstood to be close to full autonomy.  Uber and others are testing fully self-driving cars.  But for at least three reasons, GM’s approach may ultimately put it on top.

First, a more aggressive approach—either in terms of marketing driver aids or in terms of testing full self-driving—has risks.  There have been a series of high-profile crashes in the past few months involving autonomous and semi-autonomous cars.  The NTSB just released a report that suggests that the driver in a recent fatal crash in a Tesla Model X did not have his hands on the wheel and did not respond to repeated prompts to take control, which illustrates the danger inherent in drivers misunderstanding the capabilities of their driving aids.  A fatal crash in Arizona has at least for the time being derailed Uber’s self-driving car development.   While no system is perfect, the fact that GM is being careful in what Super Cruise can (and can’t) do should help to avoid incidents like this, which are not only tragic for the people involved but can harm the public’s view of autonomous vehicle technology and the credibility of companies providing it.

Second, both federal and state laws pertaining to autonomous cars are uncertain.  At the federal level, the House passed the SELF DRIVE Act last year, but the Senate has yet to take up the measure.  The federal DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in 2016 and revised it in 2017, but there are not yet any binding federal regulations on the books. State legislatures have forged ahead, with 29 states now having enacted self-driving legislation and 41 states having considered it.  Development of fully autonomous cars will continue even in the face of regulatory uncertainty, but at this point deployment of Super Cruise is a safe bet, since changes in federal and state law aimed at autonomous vehicles are unlikely to affect a limited driver-aid system like this one.

Third, and finally, the technology is just not there yet for widespread deployment of full autonomy in passenger cars.  Truly driverless vehicles are on the road already.  The University of Michigan, for example, just launched an MCity shuttle that operates on a short loop around North Campus without a driver.  But the MCity shuttle and other vehicles like it are a far cry from the self-driving car of the public’s imagination.  To get there will require continued improvements in technology.  GM (and other automakers) are not ignoring the fully self-driving market; in fact, the company made a splash earlier this year by announcing that it planned to produce a self-driving car in 2019 that doesn’t even have a steering wheel. But that car will be used, at least initially, in a particular, limited application—a ride-share service that will presumably be the subject of careful study and control.         

As the deployment of semi-autonomous and self-driving cars accelerates, we can expect more trickle-down of technology from expensive niche products to the automotive mainstream.  Super Cruise may end up being most Americans’ first experience with cars that (in a limited way) drive themselves, but it will not be their last.   

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