GM’s new Super Cruise feature could represent a breakthrough in the race to build smarter autonomous vehicles because it not only steers, brakes, and adjusts speed for the driver, it also uses infrared cameras to assess whether the driver is paying enough attention.

The updated new-production version of Super Cruise, unveiled at this year’s New York International Auto Show, will be available as an option for the 2018 Cadillac CT6 later this year.

The Detroit-based automaker also created a unique digital mapping database of 160,000 miles of major U.S. highway, including every curve and contour. The database, which will be installed as part of the Super Cruise feature on each new CT6, is meant to provide a backup for onboard cameras and sensors so the car always knows where it is (provided it's traveling on one of the mapped roads).   

In a news release about the technology, GM says Super Cruise will allow for safe, hands-free highway driving in certain situations, so the driver can “safely complete common tasks in the car, such as using the navigation system, adjusting the audio system or taking a phone call.” 

GM is also adding automatic lane-centering to the model’s “driver assistance active safety technologies, enabling automatic control of speed and steering during highway driving,” the release says.

Cadillac Super Cruise button

GM says it’s advancing hands-free, self-driving technology by focusing on driver attention rather than steering wheel sensors that sound alarms meant to jolt a driver into paying more attention.

Super Cruise uses an infrared camera on the steering column to watch the driver’s eyes and head. If the eyes wander, or the head is turned, Super Cruise will try to get the driver’s attention.

If the driver doesn't immediately refocus on the road, Super Cruise will continue to steer while issuing an escalating series of warnings. Lights on the steering wheel escalate from steady to flashing green, followed by visual indicators on the dashboard, vibrations in the seat, and then warning sounds. If after all of that the driver continues to be nonresponsive, Super Cruise will bring the car to a controlled stop and alert first responders via OnStar.

Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center in Colchester, Conn., said it’s significant that GM is making sure a driver is engaged and looking at the road.

“It’s a more robust method to make sure the driver is paying attention than just checking for a hand on the steering wheel,” he said.

Some systems, such as Tesla’s Autopilot and semi-autonomous steering and speed controls offered by BMW and Mercedes-Benz, achieve a limited level of self-driving. But they rely on drivers to keep their hands on the wheel, and the systems can’t tell if someone is actually paying attention.

Those steering-wheel based systems are getting better as automakers such as Volvo add finely tuned torque sensors to make sure drivers are actively gripping the wheel and not just passively resting a hand or finger on it, says Daniel McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator Laboratories at the University of Iowa.

The key to getting to higher levels of automation is getting a clearer understanding of how much drivers are paying attention, he said.

“GM’s approach is right on,” McGehee said. “This is a great first step in understanding more about the driver.”

Cadillac Super Cruise screen

The new mapping technology also allows Super Cruise to automatically limit its use to roads that it has fully mapped in high definition. It uses location sensors to lock out the system when the driver is not on one of the pre-mapped highways. For now, the database only includes limited-access, divided highways with entrance and exit ramps.

Before rolling out Super Cruise, GM used lidar, a type of specialized radar technology, to create the highly detailed, three-dimensional digital road maps. These types of maps could be an essential building block for the advancement of automated driving. The map database and the car’s own sensors work together to make up for situations that might render the cameras ineffective, including snow, sun glare and darkness.

“We laser-scanned 160,000 miles of roads in the U.S. and Canada and made a 3D map, and that map resides in the car,” said Barry Walkup, chief engineer for Super Cruise at Cadillac. “Radars and cameras can see only about 150 meters (164 yards) in front of the car. A map can see up to 2,500 meters (about 1.5 mile).”

Major highways are a limited driving universe, to be sure, but one with the most uniform markings and signs. GM could add more types of roads later, after it completes more mapping.

High-definition maps add a layer of safety, enabling the vehicle to position itself more accurately in the center of a lane, said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering at AAA.

“It seems like the continuing evolution of technology is allowing for better, safer operation of these manufacturers’ systems,” Brannon said. “Each iteration seems to be better than the previous one.”

But there are limitations. The maps have to be continuously updated. Automakers are going to have to build in redundancy and real-time machine learning so cars can recognize when the real world isn’t matching up with the maps—and alert the driver to pay extra attention, Brannon said.

“In the meantime, drivers need to continue to be vigilant,” Brannon said. “These are not truly self-driving cars.”

Consumer Reports has urged manufacturers to only roll out new technologies that have been thoroughly tested and to clearly communicate the limitations and capabilities of any autonomous or semi-autonomous features. That’s because some advanced driver safety systems have been pitched as something approaching full autonomy when there are serious limitations to how they can be used safely.

Right now, Consumer Reports advocates that drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel and pay attention, even when self-driving features are activated.

While GM’s approach seems like a smart one at first glance, CR will continue to monitor industry innovations. CR testers will have more to say about Super Cruise after a real-world vehicle is evaluated at the test track in the coming months.