GM working on major upgrades to Super Cruise before kicking off 2020 rollout

You’ve probably heard of Autopilot, Tesla’s buzz-worthy advanced driver assist system that combines adaptive cruise control, forward collision warnings, and lane-keep assistance. Less well-known is Super Cruise, the highly automated system developed by Cadillac that is really about as close to autonomous driving as anyone can get today. It’s less well-known because, since its debut two years ago, Super Cruise has only been in one vehicle: the CT6 sedan.

But that changed last week, when Cadillac unveiled its second vehicle with Super Cruise, the 2020 CT5 sedan, at the New York Auto Show. Two of the automaker’s top engineers sat down with The Verge to discuss the upcoming rollout of Super Cruise across Cadillac’s entire lineup.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

When it first debuted in 2017, Super Cruise drew immediate comparisons to Tesla’s Autopilot system. It uses cameras, radar, and LIDAR mapping data, combined with a robust driver monitoring system, to take a lot of stress and headaches out of highway driving. When engaged, drivers can take their feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel, and the car does the rest. This is hands-free driving in the truest sense.

But that doesn’t mean drivers can read their phone or climb in the backseat and take a nap: a driver-facing camera mounted on the steering column monitors drivers’ eye movements to ensure their attention stays on the road.

This is Super Cruise in its current form. But according to Brandon Vivian, executive chief engineer at Cadillac, there will be more to come starting in 2020. “The system that we have today, we continue to upgrade,” Vivian told The Verge. “We have over-the-air re-flash capability and you’ll continue to see us add features and capabilities to Super Cruise going forward.”

Those updates will be key if Cadillac hopes to beat the competition. Tesla’s Autopilot just underwent a major update with the addition of Navigate on Autopilot, a new driver assist feature that guides the vehicle from on-ramp to off-ramp, and even proactively makes lane changes. Earlier this week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the company’s new “Full Self Driving” computer that he said would power a fleet of up to a million robotaxis by 2020.

Super Cruise can’t make lane changes, and it is often confused by split lanes. Mike Bride, the chief engineer for the CT5, declined to comment directly on Tesla’s announcements, but confirmed that they were aware of the current stakes in ADAS technology. “We want to innovate,” he said. “So we need to make sure that as the competitors step up their game, we’re doing the same.”

He added, “We’re not going to share all the details right now but there are enhanced capabilities on their way.”

Photo: Cadillac

Cadillac tracks the number of miles its customers are driving with Super Cruise, as well as how many times the system disengages, or when the car forces the driver to take control. Vivian said of all the miles driven by CT6 owners on divided highways, 70 percent are with Super Cruise.

Still, the system has remained a luxury product thanks to its limited availability. And it’s not cheap: CT6 buyers can expect to shell out $2,500 for the standalone option on luxury (base price: $66,290) and platinum models ($85,290). Also on luxury models, Super Cruise requires buyers to purchase the $3,100 driver assist package. Cadillac has yet to announce pricing on the CT5, which goes on sale later this year.

The hardware suite in the CT5 remains essentially the same, Bride said. Front-facing radars and cameras, as well as GM’s 360-degree “Surround Vision” cameras, provide perception data that helps keep the car in its lane and maintain the right distance between cars. “I wouldn’t call it a full new generation [of hardware] yet,” Vivian said. “More like a half step in between.”

Recently, Automotive News spoke to engineers at GM who pointed out a flaw in Super Cruise’s hardware: direct sunlight in the driver-facing infrared sensor can cause the system to deactivate. Fixes for Super Cruise’s sunlight problem will be part of the hardware upgrades that are coming in the future. Vivian said they encountered a similar problem with drivers who wear polarized sunglasses, preventing the infrared sensor from tracking their eye movements.

“We’re looking at camera placement,” Vivian said. “We’re looking at software enhancements and other ways. We have other sensors that can see when the camera can’t see.”

Super Cruise can also become deactivated when lane markings are obscured, either due to snow, dirt, or poor road conditions. “That’s one that happens a lot,” Vivian said. To address this, the team updated the system so a message appears on the center console that informs the driver when the car can’t see the lane lines clearly enough to activate Super Cruise. “That also gives the driver confidence that the car is communicating back to them why things are occurring,” he said.

Right now, Super Cruise is only operational on 130,000 miles of limited-access, divided highways in the US that GM has mapped using a fleet of LIDAR-equipped vehicles. Vivian and Bride addressed the challenges Cadillac’s engineering team face in trying to expand Super Cruise’s operational domain, or the types of roads and driving environments where it can be engaged.

The system needs to be upgraded to read road signs and traffic signals. It needs to be able to navigate intersections and deal with variables like construction. These are huge challenges. “As we look at enhancing that capability, we’ll continue to find ways that meet our safety criteria,” Vivian said. “But these are all enhancements that we’re looking at.”

Photo: GM

Starting in 2020, the automaker plans to roll out a new model with Super Cruise every six months, going through the end of 2021. That means four new models with Super Cruise in two years. Concurrently, GM plans on launching a robot taxi service in San Francisco through its Cruise Automation division starting in 2019. The automaker is hoping to convince customers and investors that it has a grasp on the future, both fully autonomous through Cruise and semi-autonomous with Cadillac’s Super Cruise.

Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous and electrification programs, oversees both Cruise and Super Cruise. Part of his job is to figure out how to take Super Cruise’s driver monitoring system and integrate that in other vehicles, including Cruise’s autonomous cars.

“It only makes sense to leverage our learnings,” Bride said, “and share.”

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