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Self-Driving Cars: What Is GM's Super Cruise Semi-Autonomous System?

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author photo by Russ Heaps January 2017

Although General Motors seems reluctant to associate its Super Cruise system with self-driving cars, the system is nevertheless a collection of semi-autonomous technologies allowing the vehicle to monitor its environment and drive itself in limited situations. A rose by any other name....

In terms of what Super Cruise can do, it doesn't break new ground in many respects; however, one advancement it does offer is facial-recognition software capable of monitoring the driver.

Originally scheduled to launch with Cadillac's flagship 2016 CT6 sedan, Super Cruise will instead make its debut sometime this year. GM provided no explanation for the delay beyond simply saying the technology wasn't ready.

GM has been uncharacteristically stingy with Super Cruise details, but, because of some government hand-wringing of late over self-driving systems, the carmaker's caution is understandable. Much of what we do know about what we are likely to see from the Super Cruise system when it arrives this year is from Reuters.

What It Can Do

When engaged, Super Cruise can assume steering and braking duties. That is, it will maintain its lane on all but the twistiest of roads and brake to avoid hitting cars or other obstacles in front of it. The driver can remove his hands from the steering wheel for short periods of time but must remain attentive and ready to retake control when the system senses it is overwhelmed.

As with similar systems, Super Cruise uses cameras, radar, LiDAR and sensors to stay between the lines and automatically brake. At its release, Super Cruise will only function on the highway and even then only on highways for which it has mapping information. Lights on the steering wheel will alert the driver when conditions are right to engage the system.

On Deck

As with an on-deck batter in baseball, the driver must always be ready to step up and take control. The problem is, humans are woefully unreliable. As we grow more and more comfortable with a semi-autonomous system doing the work, we tend to become less and less involved. Currently, however, not one of these semi-autonomous systems is ready to operate unsupervised. This was learned the hard way when the driver of a Tesla Model S with Autopilot technology apparently failed to retake control of his car before it crashed into the side of a semi in Florida last summer.

Today, there are no such things as truly self-driving cars. At best, control can be passed back and forth between the driver and the the semi-autonomous system. The driver, though, must always be prepared to re-assume the reins. Super Cruise addresses the issue of the disengaged driver.

Wake Up!

Setting Super Cruise apart from other semi-autonomous systems is its ability to monitor the driver, measuring his or her level of alertness and engagement. Using facial-recognition software, it can determine when a driver is drowsy or simply not paying attention. Because the driver must be ready to take control at a second's notice, Super Cruise will alert him or her to retake control with a red visual display and a seat vibration. If the driver fails to respond, an audio alert sounds, and if the driver is still unresponsive, the car will engage its 4-way hazard lights, slow down and then stop.

Such antics on a busy highway would seem to create their own safety issues, but certainly they are preferable to a disengaged driver allowing the car to crash into something.

What it means to you: As we continue on the way to fully self-driving cars, most experts believe one of the bigger hurdles to overcome will involve safely passing control back and forth between driver and vehicle. Super Cruise is a major advancement toward achieving that.

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Self-Driving Cars: What Is GM's Super Cruise Semi-Autonomous System? - Autotrader