General Motors has lapped competitors by announcing a hands-free Cadillac for the 2017 model year, but a self-driving robot car is still a ways off.
Eager to change the course of conversation from the 29 million-plus recalls it announced this year, GM CEO Mary Barra touted Super Cruise, a feature that will be available in an unnamed Cadillac 2017 model on Sunday.
“With Super Cruise, when there’s a congestion alert on roads like California’s Santa Monica Freeway, you can let the car take over and drive hands-free and feet-free through the worst stop-and-go traffic around,” Barra said in Detroit on Sunday. “And if the mood strikes you on the high-speed road from Barstow, California, to Las Vegas, you can take a break from the wheel and pedals and let the car do the work.”
Foot-free driving, of course, isn’t all that new. Even the oldest versions of cruise control were designed for such a purpose. Hands-free driving, though, is a different story.
“We don’t really view it as driverless, like ‘Look ma, no hands’ or ‘I’m gonna go in the back seat & have a sandwich,'” said Cadillac rep David Caldwell.
While a sandwich break might be out of the question, the demo video below for Super Cruise shows you can sit in the driver’s seat and drive without touching the wheel:
It’s a step forward for auto technology, albeit not a huge one. Adaptive cruise control, which uses sensors to automatically adjust your car’s speed and keep a safe distance from the car in front of you, has existed for a decade. The 2014 Mercedes S Class also lets drivers experience hands-free driving in certain situations, like heavy traffic. Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan, has also said by the end of 2016, some Nissan models will have a “traffic jam pilot” to help drivers zone out when driving on congested roadways. Tesla is also planning to release a car that runs on “auto pilot” by 2016.
Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner, said he has tried Mercedes’ system and had two concerns. He couldn’t completely disengage his mind in traffic and, if drivers did begin to zone out regularly, they might forget how to react in dangerous situations. Mercedes’ technology addresses these issues by requiring drivers to touch the wheel every 10 seconds. Super Cruise, on the other hand, can be a stress reliever if it works as advertised, Koslowski said.
“It’s a big deal and I’m positively surprised by this,” Koslowski said of Super Cruise. He added that GM’s announcement is still rather vague at this point.
Koslowski says there are three tiers of intelligent auto technology — automated cars, autonomous cars and self-driving vehicles. Automated cars can perform some self-driving functions on their own, but still require a driver; autonomous cars can fully drive on their own yet still need a driver on hand to oversee use; self-driving cars like Google’s are essentially drones. Cadillac’s Super Cruise falls somewhere between automated and autonomous, he says. Koslowski expects that three major companies — not necessarily car companies — will announce concrete plans for autonomous vehicles in 2016, and that autonomous vehicles will be commonplace by 2025 or 2035. The ubiquity of driverless cars will take longer.
A big question for GM is whether consumers will trust the company with such a technology. “They’re very clearly trying to reinforce their safety credentials,” said Roger Lanctot, associate director of Strategy Analytics’ automotive multimedia and communications service.
Lanctot said that GM’s safety image should be on par with Volvo’s because it has had OnStar for 17 years, “which was all about saving lives.” The recalls, which have been linked to 13 deaths, have made that claim a non-starter.
“It’s been a black eye.”