Ultra Cruise will ultimately enable door-to-door hands-free driving on all public paved roads in the U.S. and Canada.

GM Ultra Cruise: Self-Driving Cars Can Finally Ditch Highways

GM announced today its semiautonomous driving system called ‘Ultra Cruise.’ It aims to leapfrog Tesla in the race to self-driving cars.

General Motors aims to put Tesla in the rearview mirror when it comes to autonomous driving. The Detroit automaker’s Super Cruise system already lets you drive hands-free on limited-access highways.

But the Ultra Cruise technology, due out in 2023, will radically upgrade its capabilities to operate on “every road including city streets, subdivision streets, and paved rural roads, in addition to highways.”

Automakers are racing to bring hands-free driving capabilities to market, Tesla just introducing the latest, “Full Self-Driving” update of its Autopilot system. But GM isn’t about to let the “upstart” EV-maker steal the lead. It announced on Wednesday plans to introduce a major upgrade of its own Super Cruise system.

GM Ultra Cruise

At launch, Ultra Cruise will operate on 2 million miles of U.S. and Canadian roadways — about 10 times more than today’s system. And GM’s goal is to boost that to 3.4 million miles, or “95% of all driving scenarios.”

Ultra Cruise could serve as a precursor of even more advanced technology GM’s California-based Cruise LLC subsidiary is developing. It recently won permission to start testing fully driverless rideshare vehicles that could become commonplace by 2030.

“Ultra Cruise is not just a game-changer in terms of what it enables ­— a door-to-door hands-free driving experience — but a technological one as well,” said Doug Parks, GM’s executive VP of global product development, purchasing, and supply chain.

Ultra Cruise will ultimately enable door-to-door hands-free driv
Ultra Cruise will ultimately enable door-to-door hands-free driving on all public paved roads in the U.S. and Canada.

Data ‘Fusion’: Camera, Radar, LiDAR, and More

GM vehicles equipped with Ultra Cruise will rely on a “fusion” of data from camera, radar, and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors, as well as digital maps far more detailed than those used in conventional, onboard navigation systems. It will also use cloud data to stay up to date on traffic, road construction, and weather conditions.

The technology will be capable of recognizing street signs and traffic signals, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. And it should handle pretty much any sort of situation that a human driver would normally negotiate, according to GM.

Adding LiDAR will become a critical breakthrough, according to analysts and tech experts like Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst with Guidehouse Insight. The laser-based technology provides a 3D image of the world around a vehicle. This provides far more detail than other sensors can provide.

And that, stressed Abuelsamid, should give GM a leg up on Tesla, which has based Autopilot on camera sensors alone.

“The way Tesla is doing it, there always will be error problems,” he said. GM’s approach “is a much more robust solution.”

Tesla Takes Heat

In fact, Tesla has come under sharp fire lately. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is probing a series of crashes involving vehicles operating under Autopilot. A number of them saw Tesla products slamming into stationary emergency vehicles.

The California EV-maker also has been faulted for labeling the latest Autopilot upgrade “Full Self-Driving.” Tesla’s website advises owners that they must keep their hands, at least lightly, on the steering wheel or yoke.

Those using the current Super Cruise system can, where permitted by law, take their hands entirely off the wheel. But they must remain ready to retake control of their vehicles in an emergency, or when driving out of a “geo-fenced” area where Super Cruise can currently operate.

GM ensures drivers comply by using a camera mounted on the instrument panel.

Tesla has also been criticized for failing to monitor driver behavior. YouTube is full of videos showing drivers falling asleep, even jumping into the back seat, while in Autopilot mode. Several crashes have been blamed on such driver misbehavior.

Ultra Cruise: The Self-Driving Car Future We’ve Been Promised?

If Ultra Cruise lives up to what GM is promising, it would take a big leap forward from the semiautonomous technology currently on the road, said Abuelsamid. But it still falls short of the fully driverless vehicles the auto industry continues working on.

The consensus is that this technology is still a decade away from widespread use, though ridesharing services like Cruise and Waymo plan to put driverless prototypes into more limited use over the next several years.