General Motors Introduces ‘Ultra Cruise,’ an Expanded Hands-Free Driver Assistance System

The new technology expands on Super Cruise, allowing hands-free driving on city streets and rural roads

GM Ultra Cruise Illustration: GM

General Motors announced its new hands-free Ultra Cruise driver assistance system, which it described as an extension of its existing Super Cruise feature with the added capability of driving on city and subdivision streets and rural roads. The new system will debut on certain Cadillac models in 2023. 

Like Super Cruise, Ultra Cruise will still require the driver to be looking ahead. An inward-facing camera behind the steering wheel ensures that the driver’s eyes are watching the road. The current Super Cruise system warns the driver with flashing LED lights on the steering wheel, and it can bring the vehicle to a gradual stop if the driver does not respond.

More on Autonomous Driving

GM said in its announcement Wednesday that Ultra Cruise builds on the capabilities of Super Cruise, which at the moment allows hands-free driving on about 200,000 miles of certain clearly marked highways using map and GPS data, and an array of cameras and sensors. The automaker says Ultra Cruise will initially function on about 2 million miles of roads in the U.S. and Canada and that it will be able to follow plotted navigation routes, maintain following distance, obey speed limits, and react to permanent traffic control devices. 

“General Motors appears to be trying to keep up with the latest automation features on the market,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “The primary concern we have with these systems is that the car could do something dangerous if the driver isn’t paying attention to the road. Even though it allows driving without hands on the steering wheel, the system requires the driver to look at the road for it to operate.”

GM spokesman Philip Lienert told CR that "Ultra Cruise works through the same basic sensor types as Super Cruise—it just has approximately 70 percent more of them, including integrated LIDAR behind the windshield.”

The addition of LIDAR is a big deal, says Fisher. The technology uses light to pinpoint distances, and its accuracy makes it an integral part of many self-driving car prototypes. LIDAR has traditionally been too expensive for widespread use, but prices are coming down, and more automakers are showing interest. Volvo has promised that it will make LIDAR standard equipment on a forthcoming EV.

Last year, Consumer Reports tested 17 driving assistance systems and awarded Super Cruise the top spot largely due to its direct driver monitoring system and clear communication to drivers when the system was operating. The steering wheel lights change colors to indicate who, or what, is driving. Tesla’s Autopilot finished second in our evaluation, mainly because it uses steering wheel inputs as its method of driver monitoring. As is the case with many vehicles, the only way a Tesla determines whether a driver is present is by using sensors to assess whether the driver is holding onto the steering wheel.

GM says that some of its high-end Cadillac vehicles will be available with Ultra Cruise starting in 2023, and that it will be making Super Cruise available on lower-priced models, too. 

Super Cruise launched on high-end Cadillacs in 2017, but its availability has spread, and it is now available on the Chevrolet Bolt EUV. Because of the global semiconductor shortage, Cadillac said recently that it would temporarily suspend Super Cruise in new Escalade SUVs.

“The reason why Super Cruise has been at the top of our list for the last few years isn’t because it has the most features. It’s because it has the most important feature—driver monitoring,” says Kelly Funkhouser, head of CR’s autonomous vehicle program. “As Ultra Cruise expands the earlier system’s capability onto busy urban and suburban streets, it’s more important than ever that it can ensure that the driver is ready to take control in an instant.”

Head shot of CR Autos Editor, Benjamin Preston

Benjamin Preston

My reporting has taken me everywhere from Baghdad, Iraq, to the Detroit auto show, along the U.S.-Mexico border and everywhere in between. If my travels have taught me anything, it's that stuff—consumer products—is at the center of daily life all over the world. That's why I'm so jazzed to be shining light on what works, what doesn't, and how people can enrich their lives by being smarter consumers. When I'm not reporting, I can usually be found at home with my family, at the beach surfing, or in my driveway, wrenching on my hot rod '74 Olds sedan.