As the old song goes, you can “get your kicks on Route 66.” And, starting later this year, you’ll be able to do it without holding onto the steering wheel.
General Motors today announced it will double the number of miles you can drive hands-free using its Super Cruise technology. And, for the first time, the system will allow motorists to drive on many non-divided state and federal highways, including the “Mother Road,” as Route 66 was known, along with the Overseas Highway, Florida’s route to the Keys, and portions of California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
All told, the update coming for the 2023 model year will let Super Cruise jump from 200,000 to 400,00 miles of road in the U.S., as well as Canada where limited-access highways are far less common. The expansion opens up the technology to “millions” more motorists, said GM mapping specialist David Craig during a media background briefing on Tuesday.
The latest update serves as “a significant step in our journey” to eventually bring fully autonomous vehicles to market, said Super Cruise Chief Engineer Mario Maiorana.
The automaker, he added, is “adding Super Cruise to more vehicles than ever, and on more roads for more customers to experience.”
The road well-traveled
The “driver assistance” package made its debut in 2017 on the old Cadillac flagship, the CT6 sedan. And it was usable only about 100,000 miles of Interstate-grade highways.
Super Cruise has since rolled out to other GM brands and a fast-expanding list of nameplates. The automaker previously announced plans to make it available on 22 models by sometime in 2023.
The system requires special maps that provide far more detail and precision than those used for conventional automotive navigation systems, so it takes time to upgrade the technology. At the moment, Super Cruise can operate on 200,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian roads, including many divided roads with limited intersections.
For 2022, GM also added the ability to drive hands-free while towing a trailer on products like the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. And Super Cruise now can initiate a pass automatically when it comes up on a slow-moving vehicle.
The latest big update will be installed on new 2023 models equipped with Super Cruise and then added to most older models using the technology by smartphone-style over-the-air updates. The rollout is expected to be complete, officials said, by the fourth quarter.
It will give motorists the ability to activate Super Cruise on many non-divided highways, like Route 66 — though it will go on standby when driving through towns or passing through areas with lots of traffic signals and stop signs. And the auto-pass function will be deactivated on those roads.
That’s not all
But Maiorana hinted that even more capable updates are likely follow. “There will be more,” he explained, while stressing GM “won’t implement something our system isn’t capable of.”
It wasn’t clear if that was meant as a shot at rival Tesla which currently faces a number of investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into the safety of its own Autopilot system. While quite popular with Tesla customers, Autopilot has been hammered by many critics, including Consumer Reports which repeatedly has rated Super Cruise as the better system.
Super Cruise “works better and in more places than any other hands-free system on the market,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst for Guidehouse Insights.
One reason for that is the use of a driver monitoring system which ensures drivers have eyes on the road, even if their hands are off the steering wheel.
That ensures they are ready to take control in the event of an emergency — or if Super Cruise simply enters an area where it defaults back to the motorist. That happens, for example, when the vehicle is roughly 1,000 to 1,500 feet from an intersection with a stoplight or stop sign.
After repeated criticism, Tesla has just begun installing a monitoring system.
Making the switch
When Super Cruise does attempt to hand back control, it flashes a signal on the steering wheel and then escalates its alert if the driver doesn’t quickly respond. Eventually, the vehicle will slow down, then stop and even alert emergency responders in case there’s been a medical emergency.
Along with the driver monitoring system — which Maiorana calls the “lynch pin of safety” for Super Cruise, the system relies on an array of cameras, radar and other sensors watching the world around each vehicle. The data undergoes a “sensor fusion,” comparing notes, so to speak, while also tracking the vehicle on the high-definition maps created by using advanced lidar, or 3-D laser, technology. Where conventional vehicle navi systems have an accuracy of 10 to 15 feet, lidar drops that to less than 2 inches.
Super Cruise and Autopilot are but two of the various driver assistance systems either available now or soon to come to market. Some, like Nissan’s ProPilot, simply help a driver hold their place in their lane while also maintaining the pace of surrounding traffic.
Ford’s BlueCruise boasts much the same technology and strategy as Super Cruise, though it came to market more recently, covers fewer miles of highway and doesn’t yet have all the same features — though the automaker promises it will quickly be updated, as well.
The most advanced system is, arguably, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot offered on the S-Class sedan and EQS battery-electric vehicle. It pushes up a notch, to Level 3 autonomy, in technical lingo — Super Cruise a less sophisticated Level 2 system. Drive Pilot allows a motorist to check text messages or watch videos on the infotainment screen — though they must also be ready to retake control in an emergency. The system currently is limited to a top speed of 37 mph and focuses on commuting situations. It’s now on sale in Germany and will come to the U.S. later this year.
For its part, GM plans to launch a second, more advanced Ultra Cruise system sometime in 2023. It claims that technology eventually will be able to handle 95% of the roads and driving conditions motorists face. And CEO Mary Barra earlier this year said her company’s goal is to launch fully autonomous Level 4 technology by the end of the decade. It would allow a motorist to complete disengage from the driving process, at least if it lives up to Barra’s expectations.