What GM Wants Drivers to Understand about Super Cruise

  • GM rolled out a new “Hands Free, Eyes On” campaign late last week.
  • The point is to educate people about the Super Cruise driver-assist technology in new and upcoming Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, and Buick vehicles.
  • GM is trying to make it very clear that, although the technology lets drivers ride with their hands off the wheel, they had better keep their eyes on the road where they belong.

General Motors has announced a new campaign to educate car shoppers and buyers on how its latest driver-assistance systems actually work. The tagline is simple: “Hands Free, Eyes On.” That refers to the Super Cruise system it’s rolling out in new models from all four of its brands: Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, and Buick.

GM worries its buyers, and the public at large, don’t understand the different types of automated driver assistance systems (ADAS). The campaign’s goal, it said, is to “encourage consumer confidence” in the benefits of ADAS systems overall and to “avoid concern and confusion.” The campaign itself will be composed of “content” that covers “free educational resources and best practices” to be distributed on “GM social channels” and its website. GM also plans to host classes for personnel at the independent dealerships that sell its cars, to educate them as well.

The Tesla Problem

The challenge is that one specific carmaker, Tesla, has gotten a great deal of attention for its so-called Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems. The attention has been good when it raises brand awareness; it’s been bad when either system is implicated (rightly or wrongly) in a major crash. Last month the Washington Post reported there have been at least 736 crashes involving Autopilot reported to NHTSA, involving 17 deaths and five serious injuries. (GM staff declined to name any other automakers, but the implication is clear.)

In the case of the Full Self-Driving technology, Tesla has now rolled out its beta software to tens of thousands of drivers. The company has claimed it assessed the driving habits of those beta testers via data uploaded to its servers before allowing them to download the software. You can view lots of YouTube videos showing the experiences, pro and con, of drivers in Teslas that are operating under the beta version of Full Self-Driving. That function now costs the buyer of a new Tesla $15,000, with no delivery date given for a final or non-beta version.

Teslas have likely covered several billion miles under Autopilot, more than any other maker’s vehicles using adaptive cruise control with active lane control. In part, that’s because the company enabled the first version of the function eight years ago, in October 2015. GM said its vehicles had covered 77 million miles using Super Cruise as of early June. Tesla said in its Q1-2023 letter to shareholders its cars had covered more than 150 million miles under the more advanced Full Self-Driving system. Note that both of Tesla’s systems currently require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

Tesla says both systems “are designed to become more capable over time” but the set of features it currently enables “do not make the vehicle autonomous.” Highly publicized videos of risk-seeking drivers who put defeat devices on Tesla steering wheels to trick the car into believing their hands are on the wheel—and in one notorious case, riding in the rear seat while the car “drove itself”—likely strike terror into the hearts of lawyers. (Tesla offers no way for the media to contact the company, so Car and Driver is unable to get comments from Tesla.)

Autonomous? Automated? Autopilot?

The thrust of GM’s new campaign is that, unlike Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, Super Cruise and its upcoming Ultra Cruise variant allow hands-free operation: drivers can take their hands off the steering wheel as the vehicle centers itself in its lane and can even automatically change lanes to overtake slower vehicles. But GM’s systems still require the driver to watch the road. They use eye-tracking cameras to ensure continued front-facing vision as long as the system is engaged. (Tesla does not currently use the interior-facing cameras in some of its EVs for that purpose.)

Though adaptive cruise control with active lane control is now found on a huge swath of the latest new cars, the majority still require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel—sensing continual minute steering inputs to ensure that remains the case. Eyeball tracking cameras are widely acknowledged as the only safe and reliable way to ensure continued driver attention without hands on the wheel, but they’re also more expensive to fit and require more complex software. In our testing, Super Cruise wasn’t impossible to fool, but it was more difficult than most other systems.

Words matter, and GM suggests public understanding of the differences among “automated” and “autonomous” driving and “Autopilot” is low. So “Hands Free, Eyes On” gets right to the heart of the matter: The car can drive itself on an increasing variety of roads, but you must always be ready to resume control within a couple of seconds. (And we’ll make sure you remain that way.)

For GM, the challenge is greater still because it does actually build and operate fully autonomous vehicles through its Cruise Automation subsidiary. In San Francisco, Cruise now offers rides in driverless Chevrolet Bolt AVs (for autonomous vehicles) that bristle with sensors—not only the usual cameras and radar, but also lidar—that feed data to a powerful computer system that makes decisions in real time about what the car is doing and facing. Those vehicles face their own concerns about potentially unsafe behavior.

Ensuring that customers understand the differences should boost the appeal of Super Cruise, which works only on limited-access highways that have been premapped, and the upcoming Ultra Cruise, which broadly offers the same functionality on a wider set of roads. The goal of Ultra Cruise is “end to end” hands-free driving from one location to another, Andrew Farah, GM’s executive director of software-defined vehicles and ADAS, told Car and Driver. The difference between the two is that Ultra Cruise requires both more advanced sensors and greater computing power to integrate the resulting data in real time and make decisions.

Still, both systems are defined only as Level 2 autonomy under the hierarchy established by the engineering group SAE International, meaning the car can drive itself under limited circumstances, but the driver must always be poised to retake control.

Those Tesla Crashes

GM and its undoubtedly large legal team very likely worry about the liability posed by drivers who don’t understand or misuse its Super Cruise system. They too will have seen the headlines about multiple NHTSA investigations into Teslas that have crashed into tractor-trailers, fire engines, or other objects while operating on Autopilot. Each of those instances differs, but—like the Cruise vehicles—Tesla’s sensors and software appear to have difficulty interpreting situations a human will instantly understand as an anomaly: a person waving their arms, a flashing light on a vehicle in the traffic lane, and so forth.

Crashes involving vehicles with ADAS systems or true autonomous driving must be reported to NHTSA within one day if they meet certain criteria. Crashes of autonomous vehicles under other criteria must be reported by the next calendar month.

GM told Car and Driver it has reported to NHTSA “a handful of crashes involving Super Cruise–equipped vehicles” but that none of those vehicles had the system engaged at the time of the crash.

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Contributing Editor

John Voelcker edited Green Car Reports for nine years, publishing more than 12,000 articles on hybrids, electric cars, and other low- and zero-emission vehicles and the energy ecosystem around them. He now covers advanced auto technologies and energy policy as a reporter and analyst. His work has appeared in print, online, and radio outlets that include Wired, Popular Science, Tech Review, IEEE Spectrum, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He splits his time between the Catskill Mountains and New York City and still has hopes of one day becoming an international man of mystery.

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