Adventurous backpackers and small town residents could soon spend part of their car commute without their hands clutching a steering wheel. By 2025, US carmaker General Motors says it intends to expand its Super Cruise Driver Assistance network to include 750,000 miles of roads in the US and Canada. The latest expansion, which places an emphasis on connecting rural towns and cities, means GM drivers can drive on roads with their hands by their side if they are in a GM vehicle equipped with Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) features. Hands free or not, the drivers will still have to keep their eye on the road.  

The auto industry’s continued investment in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as hands free deriving highlights the continued consumer interest in partial autonomous features even as more eye-catching fully autonomous driving systems face renewed consumer backlash

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What is Super Cruise and how is it changing?

Super Cruise launched in 2017 as the first commercially available hands-free driving system. Compatible GM vehicles use a combination of on-board cameras and radar sensors as well as GPS data and lidar mapping information to scan roads to help the vehicles stay in their lanes and adjust speed. Infrared cameras in the vehicles are simultaneously used to monitor drivers and ensure they are keeping their eye on the roads. In cases of emergencies, the car will require a driver to regain control of the vehicle. GM refers to this as a “hands-off, eyes-on” system. 

The actual scanning of the thousands of miles of roads is performed by a company called Dynamic Map Platform which uses vehicles equipped with lidar laser sensors to scan the roads. Those scanned maps, which are sent back into a system maintained by GM, show lane level data and topography which helps inform vehicles on when to adjust speeds. The company claims its system can help vehicles stay in their lanes even on rural roadways where lane lines may have faded or are difficult to see clearly with the human eye.

Prior to this expansion, the Super Cruise network had mapped around 400,000 miles of roads in the US and Canada. Support for ADAS systems, both by GM and its competitors, has ramped up in recent years but has primarily focused on urban and suburban areas. Rural areas can often feature narrow lanes lined with tree branches or other environmental debris that can make mapping roads more challenging. Backwoods roads can also have missing signage or other markers which can similarly make mapping roads more time consuming. These factors and others have slowed ADAS and autonomous rollout in rural areas even though residents in those areas may be some of the be suited to benefit from the tech given their lack of access to mass transit. 

GM says it’s planning to add around 40,000 news miles of operational roads to its network every quarter over the next two years. These additions will occur via over the air softwares updates with no additional charge to GM drivers. Dave Craig, GM’s technical mapping specialist, told Axios the expanded areas place an emphasis on getting drivers to “adventurous places and smaller towns.” Super Cruise’s last major expansion occurred in 2022, when it doubled its operational area from 200,000 to 400,000 miles.

“Adding minor highways to the network gives Super Cruise customers more variety and better coverage of hands-free driving, regardless of where they live, work or vacation,” GM said in a press release Thursday. 

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Driver assistance isn’t the same as full self driving 

Contrary to how the name may sound, advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) which includes hands free driving, aren’t the same as more commonly known terms like “autonomous vehicles” or “driverless cars.” Vehicles are measured on six levels of autonomy with zero representing cars with no autonomous features whatsoever and five marking futuristic self-driving vehicles of the future with no need for steering wheels or braking pedals. Super Cruise and Tesla’s well known “Autopilot” systems are considered Level 2. In GM’s case, vehicles using Super Cruise still reportedly can’t handle traffic stops or four way stops. All currently available ADAS vehicles also still require drivers to keep their eyes on the road, which means no highway movies or video zoom calls. 

That admittedly cumbersome autonomy scale isn’t always followed to the tee by carmakers. Tesla, in particular, has drawn regulator and lawmaker scorn in recent years over its use of the terms “Autopilot” and “Full-Self-Driving” (FSD) to describe its ADAS tools that don’t meet the qualifications of fully autonomous. That confusion, critics argue, can lull drivers into a false sense of security in the system which can potentially lead to crashes resulting in serious injury or death. GM specifically contrasts its self-described safety first approach to driver assist rollout to Tesla, which currently lets users trial use its FSD on public roads despite it technically still being in “beta.” 

“Our customers have driven Super Cruise completely hands-free 160 million miles and there has not been one accident attributed to Super Cruise.” Super Cruise  Product Manager Jeff Millers said in a recent interview with The Verge.

“We’re not going to beta test on our customers like some other competitors do,” he added. 

ADAS tools are still more compelling than fully autonomous vehicles, for now

GM’s decision to continue investing in ADAS coverage may allow it to bring more advanced driving technology to consumers without the backlash associated with more fully autonomous vehicles. Last year GM backed Cruise, which offered Level 4 autonomous taxi rides in San Francisco was forced to halt operations in the state indefinitely following a string of safety concerns, including one incident where one of the autonomous vehicles reportedly ran over a woman and dragged her after a hit and run driver collided with the pedestrian. Incidents like those have begun to sour the public’s perception of totally driverless vehicles. Nearly half (44%) of US adults surveyed by Pew said they thought widespread driverless cars would be bad for society. 

ADAS tools and services, by contrast, have attracted more interest among consumers who value them for convenience and perceived safety. In some cases, compelling ADAS features can pull drivers towards certain brands and models. A recent survey of drivers across 15 markets by McKinsey & Company found that 47% of internal combustion engine drivers said they would consider switching car brands for better ADAS features. 74% of electric vehicle drivers said they would similarly switch brands over ADAS. That consumer demand is pushing GM and its competitors to both offer new services and expand the areas where these services can safely operate.  

“Alongside separate work on fully autonomous vehicles with Cruise, safely deploying and expanding access to advanced driver assistance systems, like Super Cruise, is an important step in gaining consumer trust and excitement around the future of transportation,” a GM spokesperson told PopSci. “Super Cruise customers have driven more than 160 million miles accident-free –and we hope that trend continues.” 

In other words, legacy carmakers like GM aren’t giving up on their full self-driving dreams just yet. In the meantime, less publicly-decisive ADAS systems offer a technological bridge to introduce drivers to an increasing array of more autonomous systems.