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GM Ultra Cruise Takes Autonomy to Next Level

GM unveils an ambitious evolution of their autonomous driving tech dubbed Ultra Cruise.

Look Ma, No Hands

GM Ultra Cruise - media.gm.com
GM Ultra Cruise - media.gm.com

General Motors has announced the next level in their autonomous driving technology they’re calling Ultra Cruise. The system is central to the company’s stated goal of “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.” Ultra Cruise, as an advanced level two autonomous driving system, would be a significant step toward at least the first and last item on that list. GM claims Ultra Cruise will enable hands-free driving in 95 percent of situations.

GM says the Super Cruise system will allow for “a door-to-door hands-free driving experience,” which sounds very ambitious given the current state of autonomous driving is basically integrated versions of level one systems like adaptive cruise control and level two systems like lane keep assist.

A More Complete Picture

2021 Cadillac Escalade Super Cruise - media.gm.com
2021 Cadillac Escalade Super Cruise - media.gm.com

So, what does covering 95 percent of use cases look like? Per GM’s press release, Ultra Cruise will expand on the current Super Cruise system by doing the following:

  • Provide users with information based on their experience with the system through an all-new dynamic display
  • React to permanent traffic control devices
  • Follow internal navigation routes
  • Maintain headway; follow speed limits
  • Support automatic and on-demand lane change
  • Support left and right-hand turns
  • Support close object avoidance
  • Support parking in residential driveways

Currently, GM’s Super Cruise system is on par (or slightly better than) Tesla’s system. If GM’s claims prove accurate, the Ultra Cruise system would leap-frog Autopilot’s current capabilities. One big reason, Ultra Cruise uses cameras, lidar, radar, and other sensors to build a sophisticated 360° three-dimensional image of the vehicle’s surroundings to allow the vehicle to navigate ever more complex driving situations.

Ultra Cruise Vs “Full Self Driving”

GM Self Driving Demo - CNET Highlights on youtube.com
GM Self Driving Demo - CNET Highlights on youtube.com

What makes this a possible game changer? GM intends for Ultra Cruise to work not just on marked roads but on basically all paved roads, urban and rural. The current Super Cruise system is operable on some 200,000 miles of roads in the US and Canada, while the Ultra Cruise system would greatly expand this to some 2 million miles upon launch with a final target of approximately 3.4 million miles of road. That means Ultra Cruise wouldn’t just be operable on orderly, well-marked interstates but in much more complex urban and suburban driving situations, including those without pavement markings (a limitation of Tesla’s current autonomous driving software).

Super Cruise Steering Wheel Light Bar - media.gm.com
Super Cruise Steering Wheel Light Bar - media.gm.com

It’s also worth noting, GM does not currently beta test its autonomous driving software in cars they’ve already sold and are being driven on public roads. Meanwhile, Tesla has been doing exactly that for years, and as recently as last month the company had to roll back a beta version of their Full Self Driving (FSD) software that had been deployed to customer’s cars due to safety concerns. One could argue, in the face of potential safety concerns, that the driving public is already becoming overly reliant on safety automation and that said concerns over live beta testing are overblown. But then, Tesla calls their system Autopilot and practically all current driver assistance technologies exist, at least in part, to incrementally habituate the public to increasing levels of autonomous driving (and gather valuable data, of course).

The Road Ahead

2019 Cadillac CT6 Super Cruise - media.gm.com
2019 Cadillac CT6 Super Cruise - media.gm.com

GM says the “advanced” level two Ultra Cruise system will be deployed in the company’s upscale vehicles (read Cadillacs) while the more pedestrian Super Cruise system will be made more widely available on their “mainstream vehicles” like the Chevrolet Silverado. Therefore, we’d expect to see Ultra Cruise making its debut in something like the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq EV. There’s no word yet on what kind of upcharge GM will be leveling for the Ultra Cruise system, but the company plans to have Ultra Cruise in vehicles by 2023.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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