After years of teases, General Motors is finally pulling the curtain back on its next-generation “hands-free” driver-assist technology.
Dubbed Ultra Cruise, the new system uses sensors like cameras, radars, and lidar to control a vehicle’s steering, acceleration, and braking. GM says the system can be used on 2 million miles of paved roads and in “95 percent” of driving scenarios. Though which vehicles will get Ultra Cruise is still a mystery; GM says it will be available in a handful of premium vehicles in 2023, though the automaker wouldn’t disclose specific models.
The news was announced as part of GM’s two-day annual investor event, in which GM also revealed its plan to double revenues by 2030 as it seeks to become a software company in addition to making cars.
GM’s first-generation advanced driver-assist system (ADAS), Super Cruise, has been praised as a safer, more capable version of Tesla’s Autopilot, thanks to its camera-based driver monitoring system that ensures drivers keep their eyes on the road. GM says Super Cruise will “co-exist” with Ultra Cruise, with the former available in more “mainstream” vehicles, while the latter is reserved for GM’s luxury models. GM wouldn’t comment on the price customers will be expected to pay to add Ultra Cruise as an option on their vehicles.
Super Cruise, which debuted in 2017 in the Cadillac CT6 sedan, is capable of completely hands-free driving across more than 200,000 miles of divided highway across North America. It compares the vehicle’s position, taken from both GPS and onboard cameras, to its location in a lidar map collected by GM. Once the vehicle knows where it is and that it’s safe to activate, Super Cruise will take over both steering and acceleration.
By comparison, Ultra Cruise will be much more capable. GM said the system will cover “more than” 2 million miles of paved roads in the US and Canada at launch, with the capacity to grow up to more than 3.4 million miles.
In a call with reporters, GM President Mark Reuss said Ultra Cruise would be able to handle “urban and rural” roads, in addition to stop signs, traffic signals, and other complexities that Super Cruise is currently unable to detect. “Ultra Cruise will do this in a slower environment, urban life as well,” Reuss said. “And again, we’ll have the maps out there to do over 2 million miles, moving to three and a half.”
Jason Ditman, chief engineer at GM, elaborated on Ultra Cruise’s capabilities. “Drivers will be able to travel hands-free across nearly every paved road, including city streets, subdivision streets, and rural paved roads,” Ditman said.
Ditman described Ultra Cruise as a “route following feature” that maintains headways and follows the speed limit. Ultra Cruise will also support automatic and on-demand lane changes, left and right hand turns, avoid close objects, and enable parking in residential driveways.
Ultra Cruise-enabled vehicles will come equipped with lidar, which historically is rare for production vehicles thanks to the high costs associated with the laser sensor. “The sensing architecture is all new,” Ditman said. “There are additional cameras and radars, and we are adding lidar to the vehicle.”
Ultra Cruise won’t be able to handle every driving scenario. Ditman gave the example of a roundabout as a type of complex road condition that the ADAS will not be able to navigate. A light bar in the steering wheel will communicate to the driver when they need to control, sending signals through escalating lights and haptic feedback. A voice assistant will also inform the driver when they need to take the wheel.
GM relied on lidar-scanned high-definition maps for Super Cruise, but Ditman said it wasn’t practical to map all 2 million miles of road for Ultra Cruise. “We do rely on similar map data,” he said. “However, we have a larger number of sensors that also observe the roads so when we combine the map accuracy with what our sensors see of the road geometry and the road markings, we’re still able to accurately place ourselves and drive the right nominal path.”
Despite its enhanced capabilities, GM says it still considers Ultra Cruise a Level 2 system, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. At Level 2, the vehicle can control both steering and acceleration and deceleration, as well as monitor blind spots and even change lanes automatically. But it falls short of full autonomy because a human sits in the driver’s seat and can take control of the car at any time.
Level 2 systems aren’t infallible. Notably, Alphabet’s Waymo abandoned its plans to develop a Level 2 ADAS after determining that a fully autonomous system would be far safer. And certain automakers’ advanced driver-assistance systems often fail when driving into sharper curves, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The federal government is paying more attention to ADAS, recently announcing that automakers would be required to report incidents involving driver assistance and autonomous systems within one day of learning of a crash.