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‘Super-Duper Cruise’ Didn’t Cut It: GM’s Ultra Cruise Aims to Elevate Hands-Free Driving

gm-ultra-cruise-2023-4 General Motors Ultra Cruise | Manufacturer image

The race to fully autonomous driving heats up further as GM has revealed its upcoming Ultra Cruise hands-free driving system, which takes aim squarely at Tesla’s Full-Self Driving technology. While Tesla arguably had an early runaway lead in semi-autonomous driving systems, Ultra Cruise is poised to narrow the gap.

Related: When Hands-Free Ain’t Free: What’s the Cost of Self-Driving Tech?

GM’s new system expands on the automaker’s existing Super Cruise capabilities to allow for hands-free driving on all paved roads — not just highways — with more advanced driving functions and its human-machine interface.

According to GM, Ultra Cruise will cover 2 million miles of paved roads across the U.S. and Canada at first, expanding to an additional 3.4 million miles at a later time; future functions and services will arrive through over-the-air updates. The system monitors the vehicle’s surroundings with a combination of cameras, radar and lidar to allow drivers to release the wheel for functions like automated lane changes, turns and parking maneuvers.

Humans Still in Charge

Although Ultra Cruise is more advanced than Super Cruise — currently offered on select Cadillac and Chevrolet vehicles — it is still a Level 2 partial automation system. This means a human driver must pay full attention at all times. Ultra Cruise will utilize the same driver-facing camera as Super Cruise to monitor the driver’s attention to the road; there’ll still be no dozing off or checking emails for drivers.

While semi-autonomous systems like Ultra Cruise allow drivers to release the wheel in many driving scenarios, it’s important to note that there are no true self-driving vehicles for sale in the U.S. at this time.

Ultra Cruise Vs. Super Cruise: What’s the Difference?

GM came out of the gate strong with its Super Cruise technology when it launched on the Cadillac CT6 for 2018. Today, the system allows drivers to release the wheel for functions like steering, accelerating, automatic lane changes and braking, but it’s only possible on 200,000 miles of designated highways.

Ultra Cruise promises to expand the hands-free function to include left- and right-hand turns, close-object avoidance and residential parking. In addition to highways, Ultra Cruise is designed for city roads, subdivisions and rural roads — as long as they are paved. GM claims its ultimate goal is to expand the system to cover 95% of driving scenarios on all paved roads.

A more advanced HMI than what is currently offered with Super Cruise will utilize a head-up display to show the driver what the vehicle sees and communicate critical information.

The Race to Automation

GM is competing with Tesla’s Autopilot and Full-Self Driving technology, along with Ford’s BlueCruise — also offered for its premium Lincoln brand as ActiveGlide — and BMW’s Extended Traffic Jam Assistant.

Tesla’s Autopilot enables automatic steering, acceleration and braking, while Full-Self Driving adds lane changes, merging, traffic sign recognition and parking. Autosteer on city streets is a forthcoming feature, expected to arrive by the end of 2021. While Super Cruise, BlueCruise and ETJA allow drivers to release the wheel for select driving functions, Tesla’s system requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at this time. The automaker is piloting extended hands-free capability in the form of FSD Beta for select testers only.

BlueCruise and ActiveGlide are similar to GM’s Super Cruise in that both systems offer hands-free steering and lane centering only on dedicated highways; ETJA works only on limited-access highways with physical barriers to oncoming traffic and clearly marked exits and entrances. Upcoming BlueCruise features include automatic lane changes and automatic speed adjustments, but Ford has yet to reveal plans to expand the capability to city and rural roads.

Super Cruise and Ultra Cruise Availability

Super Cruise is currently offered on the 2021 Cadillac CT4, CT5 and Escalade. Upcoming Super Cruise-enabled vehicles include the 2022 Bolt EUV, 2022 Silverado, 2022 GMC Sierra and GMC Hummer EV. GM says Ultra Cruise will be reserved for its premium brands upon its 2023 arrival, starting with Cadillac.

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