GM says hands-free cars coming in 2016

By Shawna Ohm

We may still be years away from the flying cars of “The Jetsons,” but some elements of their futuristic vehicles may be just a few years away.

General Motors (GM) announced Sunday that its first hands-free cars will roll out in 2016. Previously, GM had set it’s target date somewhere before 2020.

The technology is called “super cruise,” and GM is quick to warn that it’s not the same as the driverless cars you may have seen Google (GOOGL) testing out in California.

Google, for the record, is still seeing problems with its own driverless models. A new status report shows the car can’t navigate potholes or drive in rain.

But GM is not quite as ambitious as Google. The automaker is not looking to eliminate the driver any time soon. Its hands-free driving system is essentially cruise control on steroids – kind of like the auto-pilot feature for planes that stills allows pilots to take the helm.

Beyond hands-free steering, the super cruise vehicles will be wi-fi enabled, allowing them to communicate with each other to avoid crashes. Still, Mary Barra said, “Super Cruise will keep drivers alert and engaged.”

“It is a real thing,” said Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Aaron Task. “The technology does work, at least in limited usage. The question is when you get it out on the road with other human beings around who maybe aren’t as good [of] drivers, maybe aren’t paying as close attention as that computer, what’s going to happen the first time one of these vehicles gets into an accident?”

That’s a question weighing on GM competitor Toyota (TM). Toyota – which has competed with GM for years for the title of world’s largest automaker – said last week that it would be putting similar highly automated cars on the road by 2017. But Toyota admits it’s very concerned about the safety of a car without a driver. Chief Technology Officer Sago Kuzamaki told journalists, “Toyota’s main objective is safety, so they will not be developing a driverless car.”

“The technology is unproven,” said Task.

Google though, is trying to change that. The tech giant has been working for years on a car that could eliminate the need for drivers all together. Earlier versions of their car conspicuously lacked brakes and steering wheels. The company later needed to re-introduce the pair to comply with California regulations which require that drivers be able to take immediate physical control of vehicles.

While GM’s goals may be less ambitious as far engineering, in terms of its image, GM may be in for a challenge. The carmaker has recalled some 28 million vehicles this year, giving newly minted CEO Mary Barra one heck of a road test during her first year on the job.

“She needs to move past this recall issue,” said Task. “The sales numbers last week – GM sales were not strong relative to their major competitors.... I think a lot of consumers want them to [prove corporate culture has changed] before they come back to GM.”