Cadillac recently announced it would introduce what would essentially be a self-driving car within the next two years. This would make the luxury division of General Motors the first mainstream automaker to market with an auto that can, under certain circumstances, take control of a vehicle away from the driver.
The planned driver assist system will be called Super Cruise, and as the name implies it takes existing cruise control system technology to the next level, including hands-off lane keeping, braking and full-range speed control. It will premiere in an as-yet unannounced model scheduled to debut for the 2017 model year, which speculation suggests will be a new full-size rear-drive sedan that would reside atop Cadillac’s lineup as its flagship.
“A tide of innovation has invigorated the global auto industry, and we are taking these giant leaps forward to remain a leader of new technology,” says General Motors CEO Mary Barra. “We are not doing this for the sake of the technology itself. We’re doing it because it’s what customers around the world want. Through technology and innovation, we will make driving safer.”
Super Cruise would combine existing accident avoidance systems to, as the GM release on the subject explains it, “increase the comfort of an attentive driver on freeways, both in bumper-to-bumper traffic and on long road trips.”
While engaged the system would maintain a set speed and distance from the traffic ahead, speeding up and applying the brakes, and even bringing the vehicle to a complete stop as necessary. Meanwhile, cameras would be used to spot lane markers on the highway, and would work with a car’s electric power steering to keep the vehicle centered within a lane.
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GPS technology would likely also come into play to ensure the car adheres to local speed limits and to keep the system prepared to manage curves, hills and dips and changes in allowed speeds it will encounter down the road. We’d expect the system would be operable only in highway driving and under ideal conditions, such as with good visibility and well-marked lanes. The driver will probably still be required to monitor the system so he or she could intervene in safety-critical situations as needed.
Mercedes-Benz has thus far come the closest to fitting a car with autonomous driving technology with its Distronic Plus system, offered in its S-Class and E-Class models. Here the system maintains a set speed and can not only keep the car from drifting out of its lane via subtle steering input, it can keep an electric eye out for traffic in adjacent lanes and steer away from trouble if they start to swerve in the vehicle’s path. But Mercedes’ system hedges its bets – we’d guess based on input from its legal department – by requiring drivers still keep their hands on the steering wheel.
And therein lies the proverbial rub regarding autonomous driving cars, namely the legal consequences of owning and driving one. For example, it has yet to be decided who would be held accountable if a self-driving car is involved in a crash – the motorist sitting behind the wheel or the vehicle’s manufacturer? If a car is set to maintain a certain speed and doesn’t react quickly enough when the posted limit changes, who is liable for a speeding ticket?
What’s more only four states and the District of Columbia (as of this writing) have thus far enacted legislation that would allow self-driving cars on its roads.
We suspect General Motors’ legal team will be working with its engineers and product planners to craft the coming Super Cruise system to exist more as an extension of existing adaptive cruise control and accident avoidance systems, both in its promotion and operation, than as a full-blown autonomous vehicle to avoid contentious legal and legislative hurdles.