General Motors announced today that the new Cadillac CT6 will include a "Super Cruise" feature — described by the company as "the industry's first true hands-free driving technology for the highway". The technology is similar to Tesla's Autopilot feature that lets people take their hands off the wheel when they're driving in highway settings. But this type of driver-assistance capability is still new, and it falls in a legal grey area if it's involved in a crash.
Super Cruise, like Tesla Motor's notorious Autopilot feature, also takes over control of driving on highways. Both systems specialise in keeping vehicles in the correct lane and adapting speed based on surrounding traffic, speed limits, and other environmental clues.
When Tesla's Autopilot was involved in several fatal crashes last year, however, it raised many questions about the safety of the feature, and who is legally at fault if a car is being controlled by a computer when it crashes. Despite the possible minefield on the road ahead, Cadillac is moving forward with its plans to release a competing product with big promises about safety.
The revelation last month that a fatal car cash involved Tesla's "Autopilot" feature has sparked a debate over liability when it comes to assisted driving. Who's legally at fault in a crash if a car is being somewhat controlled by a computer?
Cadillac says the feature will only be available in specific settings, namely "divided, limited-access highways" with evident on- and off-ramps. The system will use a camera with infrared lights built into the steering wheel to keep track of a driver's head position, apparently ensuring they're paying attention while the driver assistance feature is on.
The system will also alert drivers through a lighting system on the steering wheel if it notices the driver is not paying attention to the road. Cadillac also says there's a fail-safe measure that will bring the vehicle to a "controlled stop" if the driver does not properly respond to the alerts.
Unlike Tesla Autopilot, GM will also be using LiDAR information to help its cars drive safely. LiDAR system are used on most fully autonomous self-driving cars, but most popular carmakers have avoided the systems because the components are expensive and the aesthetics are ugly. Cadillac is using an interesting workaround to this conundrum by deploying a fleet of LiDAR mapping cars that will then send information to Super Cruise vehicles using over-the-air updates.
Mobileye is breaking up with Tesla. The Israel-based company helps Tesla build its Autopilot driver assistance systems, but on Thursday, the company's chairman said Tesla was "pushing the envelope in terms of safety" and discontinued its relationship with the automaker.
Yet GM's announcement comes in the wake of a controversy-filled year for Tesla Motors, which has struggled to defend its use of the name "Autopilot" after the feature was involved in several fatal crashes recently.
Last year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles proposed regulations that would have prohibited Tesla from using the Autopilot name to market its vehicles. Regulators believed that the Autopilot name implied drivers had no responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel or eyes on the road.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in November, consumer advocates agreed.
In September, more questions were raised when Mobileye, the company that helped build Tesla's Autopilot driver assistance systems, ended its relationship with Tesla because it said the company was "pushing the envelope in terms of safety".
Cadillac's decision to market Super Cruise as a "hands-free" feature could very well encourage drivers to perform reckless activities while driving including sending text messages, watching movies, or even something as ridiculous as taking a nap. And as we've unfortunately learned, drivers are often eager to show off the new technology in their expensive new cars. It's still too early to say whether Cadillac's new Super Cruise feature will face the same type of legal issues that Tesla has, but it's easy to see how drivers might misunderstand the capabilities of this product.