Quite honestly I've been pretty happy with the current state of the industry when it comes to driving assistance technology and "lane keep assist" type features that are available from most manufacturers today. They all have different names but fundamentally those technologies depend on a camera and some other sensors that help keep your car between the lanes. This is a huge benefit when it comes to long road trips. However, it wasn't until last week at a General Motors test track outside of Detroit that I started to realize just how awesome Super Cruise can be.
Why Super Cruise More Than Just Lane Keeping
Super Cruise is General Motors' hands-free driving system. While it is not "auto pilot" or a fully self driving car, the latest version - appearing this fall on the Hummer and then on the 2022 GMC Sierra 1500 - offers some pretty impressive features that those "other systems" simply can't match.
While similar lane keeping technologies work best where there are two well painted lines to keep the car between, GM's Super Cruise combines hundreds of thousands of miles of roads that it has mapped with advanced sensors to help navigate them. For example, I've used systems from other manufacturers that worked great until the car followed the outside line trying to depart the road at an exit ramp. Other times, you get into an area where lines in the road might have been worn away. Those other systems fail pretty terribly at those situations.
On the other hand, Super Cruise features 200,000 miles across United States and Canada so that have been mapped so the car will know where the road is supposed to go.
Additionally, while the lane keeping is a huge benefit on long road trips, those technologies aren't able to work with trailering or switch lanes when you have a slower car in front of you.
What is Hands Free Anyhow?
Hands free means you don't need to use your hands. The car is quite literally driving itself without your intervention. While it is limited in the operations that it can execute, Super Cruise can now make lane changes and pass other vehicles as well as operate with a trailer attached. As you can see in the photo above, I was sitting in the cab of the new 2022 Sierra traveling around a curved track at 60 miles per hour and the vehicle operated flawlessly without my input.
Super Cruise, the industry’s first true hands-free driver-assistance system, utilizes a driver attention system and precision LiDAR generated map data in addition to real-time cameras, sensors and GPS. The driver attention system uses a small camera located on the top of the steering column and works with infrared lights to determine where the driver is looking whenever Super Cruise is in operation. If the driver attention system detects the driver has turned their gaze away from the road ahead for too long, the steering wheel light bar will prompt the driver to return their attention to the road.
This isn't tapping the wheel ever few moments or resting your thumb on the wheel. Super Cruise actually can monitor your face to know when you are alert and paying attention to the road.
While it might seem a minor difference from similar systems, on a long road trip this can reduce muscle fatigue and increase your ability to concentrate on the road ahead. This will ultimately allow you to be a safer driver.
Doesn't Tesla's Autopilot Already Do Autonomous Driving?
The simple answer is no. There are no legal, government certified self driving cars available for consumers to buy today. Not Tesla, not anyone else.
I find the battle of these two companies remarkable since on the Tesla side you have a disruptive startup with a brash CEO who isn't afraid to pick fights and perhaps "trick" people into thinking something is more powerful than it actually is. After all, the word "autopilot" sounds like it should be able to well ... pilot the car automatically. On the other hand you have one of the world's largest and most respected manufacturers proceeding in a sometimes infuriatingly slow and cautious manner as it approaches the goal of ultimately offering self-driving cars. We're not there yet but I didn't quite understand just how advanced GM was until I had the chance to talk with their engineers in person.
The core difference between Tesla's Autopilot and GM's Super Cruise is that Tesla's system can be used on any road while GM's is limited to roads that GM's engineers have tested and certified. However, from a practical perspective, the capabilities of the two vehicles are very similar for highway driving though Autopilot can be used on roads that haven't been certified by GM's engineers. This is a big plus in terms of freedom ... but is ultimately dangerous to both the owners as well as other people on the roads.
I don't want to get into a moral discussion about should a company be over protective or allowing their users to fully use the features they paid for. The fact is that when I first tested Super Cruise several years ago I felt very limited. The time might be approaching now though where most situations where I'd want to engage Super Cruise will be fully supported. Realistically, I don't know if I'm ready to hand control - even for a moment or two - on country back roads and residential neighborhoods, so Super Cruise is a good option for me.
The other major capability advantage that Tesla has right now is that it offers Navigate on Autopilot, which will allow the vehicle to enter and exit roadways. Without a doubt, Super Cruise could do this as well. However, this is where we get back to the difference between those two companies. Tesla is a disruptive startup who wants to charge ahead as quickly as possible, while GM is the slow, methodical, and more mature competitor who is focused to delivering a more refined product.
One thing is for certain though. Both platforms are evolving rapidly. While there are hardware differences from one model year to another, many of these updates will be available through OTA updates.
General Motors Will Introduce New Super Cruise on Six 2022 Model Year Vehicles!
While the time I spend in Detroit was focused specifically on experiencing New Super Cruise on a heavily camouflaged 2022 Sierra 1500, GM will be introducing it on six vehicles coming up. These model year 2022 Super Cruise enabled vehicles include: Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac CT4, Cadillac CT5, Chevrolet Silverado, GMC HUMMER EV Pickup, and GMC Sierra.
While it will not be available at launch, the 2022 Sierra 1500 will feature trailering capability while driving hands-free on compatible roads, along with the new automatic lane change feature.
This Is Not The End Of Human Driving!
This is an exciting time to be a fan of road trips. Technologies like Super Cruise are going to change the way we drive but I don't see humans being taken out of the equation any time soon. What was immediately clear after just a few moments is that basic things that I enjoy about driving to new destinations - conversations with friends, being able to look around, even just being able to grab some fries will be much easier to do ... and safer ... once systems like this are ubiquitous.
While we saw them first on luxury vehicles from Cadillac and Tesla, GMC and Chevy are poised to bring this technology to the masses.
We can't wait to see what comes next!