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GM working on semi-autonomous Ultra Cruise to operate on all roads


Henry Payne   | The Detroit News

General Motors Co. is working on a comprehensive Tesla-fighting Ultra Cruise semi-autonomous system for its passenger cars. And its fully autonomous Cruise Origin vehicle may moonlight delivering packages in addition to delivering people to their destinations.

The revelations came from global product development chief Doug Parks, as he promised that GM's vision for self-driving transportation is on track during the COVID crisis.

“There (have been) no changes over last two months except some slight austerity,” Parks said Tuesday during a conference call for the Citi 2020 Car of the Future Symposium. “We absolutely still believe in this future. We think it will dramatically change the way people and packages move around.”

GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot have been market leaders in bringing driver-assist, so-called Level 2 driving to passenger cars. On fully autonomous Level 4-5 vehicles, they have diverged: Tesla is pursuing a future which owners would be able to share their cars as part of a broader robotaxi fleet called the Tesla Network. GM, by contrast, is developing its Origin robotaxi under a separate Cruise entity in San Francisco.

On the passenger-car side, GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot are “geo-fenced” systems designed for hands-free driving as long as vehicles are on divided, limited-access highways such as interstates.

First introduced on the Cadillac CT6 sedan in 2017, Super Cruise uses a more comprehensive suite of hardware — including lidar along with infrared sensors to monitor driver attention — to navigate and automatically change lanes. Tesla's camera-and-radar-based system offers similar capability, but also allows self-driving on secondary roads.

Parks says Ultra Cruise — an internal GM name for now — aims to expand Super Cruise's highway autonomy to all roads.

“Super Cruise is about all highways all the time and increased capability. The downside is when you get off the (highway) you don’t have it,” Park told the symposium. “What Ultra Cruise (is) trying to do is take that same capability off the highway. So Ultra Cruise would be all the Super Cruise plus neighborhoods, cities, subdivisions. We’re not saying Ultra Cruise will be fully autonomous 100% of the time, although that could be one of the end games.”

Tesla's pioneering Autopilot system, available on all its vehicles, recently received an over-the-air update that automatically stops for red lights and stop signs. The system, however, requires constant attention by the driver. Though Parks didn’t go into more detail, Ultra Cruise would presumably work similarly, but alloa the driver to remain hands-free for longer.

Guidehouse Insight auto analyst Sam Abuelsamid expects GM to be more conservative in rolling out Ultra Cruise than Tesla.

“GM will do a lot more development before delivery,” said Abuelsamid. “GM has targeted 2023 when their systems can work in conjunction with, say, city V2X infrastructure where cars communicates with roadside sensors.”

Parks said it's important to keep costs down on passenger cars. “We’re focused on how can we give drivers additional capability above and beyond the highway at a priceable level. How can we continue to add self-assist capability to people's cars without tens of thousands of dollars?”

GM sees more expensive equipment like lidar as essential for Origin, the bread-loaf shaped people mover that GM’s Cruise division introduced in San Francisco this January. Jointly developed with Honda, Origin AV has no steering wheel, and is built on the same battery-powered “skateboard platform" that supports the Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyric SUV.

Parks acknowledged that coronavirus may bring new challenges in a world in where passengers may balk at ride-sharing shoulder-to-shoulder.

“The thing that maybe it is changing, potentially, is the whole social distancing. Will everyone want to be packed in one of those? Maybe, maybe not,” said the GM executive. “So we’re still happy to take one or two people in the vehicle, so maybe it’s not completely packed.”

But he said other opportunities might open like package delivery, a service that Origin (and other vehicles like Rivian trucks under contract with Amazon) was also designed for.

“You could almost argue on the other side of COVID, there is more package delivery, not less. So if we can reconfigure and deliver packages off-peak and then deliver people on-peak, that’s still very much within our operating window.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.