General Motors’ Super Cruise is a hands-free driving system comparable to Tesla’s Autopilot. It’ll debut this fall in the Cadillac CT6 sedan, and Cadillac is describing it as “the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology for the highway.”
That’s a bit of a shot at Tesla, whose Autopilot system has been on the road for years. But Tesla now requires that drivers actually keep their hands on the wheel, even when Autopilot doing the driving. Cadillac’s Super Cruise will be truly hands-free thanks to a “driver attention” system that monitors head position and stops the car if the operator takes their eyes off the road for too long.
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That’s a neat step forward, but the map at the heart of the Cadillac system is an even bigger deal. All driver-assist systems, and future driverless cars, rely on detailed digital maps, maybe just as much as they rely on decision-making AI systems. Tesla, whose Autopilot is widely regarded as the state of the art in advanced driver assistance, has gathered more than 1.3 billion miles of road and driving data from real-world users since 2014.
Analysts regard that data as a huge edge, allowing Tesla to continually improve the performance of Autopilot and autonomous systems. But GM has taken what it says is a unique approach to catching up, focusing on the quality of their road data, rather than the volume. The company told The Verge that they’ve mapped 160,000 miles of highways using LIDAR, a kind of highly precise 3D laser imaging.
The top-down mapping approach requires a lot more resources than Tesla’s data-harvesting. For instance, according to chief engineer Barry Walkup, Cadillac will monitor construction zones and re-map them regularly using LIDAR trucks. The benefits of the hands-on approach were on display in a recent video of a Tesla getting fooled by imperfect lane markers in a construction zone.
Cadillac is playing it safe in another way, by strictly limiting the use of its hands-free tech to highways. Of course, Tesla could do the same thing if they wanted to, but the company has gotten a ton of mileage out of videos of Autopilot performing well on smaller roads. That looser approach means more risk, but Tesla customers are a daring bunch, most of them seemingly comfortable with being guinea pigs in a grand experiment. Cadillac targets a different crowd, who may be fine with a more limited assist feature if that’s a tradeoff for safety.
In the end, even assuming that Cadillac’s system works perfectly, it’s not a real threat to Tesla’s position at the front of the driver-assistance pack. Cadillac is borrowing a concept that works and making it (hopefully) foolproof for an older, more mainstream customer base. Meanwhile, Tesla is already on to the next six months ago, it started installing the hardware for full level-5 autonomy in all of its new cars. Testing and regulatory progress are all that it needs to switch it on.