With investigations and lawsuits over accidents adding skepticism toward fully driverless technology, car companies are betting on systems that take some, but not all, control.
This article is part of our series on the Future of Transportation, which is exploring innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.
Imagine heading eastbound on, say, I-95 when you and your pickup encounter red brake lights for miles ahead. Now imagine not touching the brakes or steering wheel and, instead, sitting back and letting the car deal with it.
For the next hour of stop-and-go slog, the truck’s system does the driving: anticipating slowdowns, accelerating, braking and steering on its own. When traffic eases up, the pickup climbs to a selected 70-mile-per-hour speed and executes automated lane changes. The system checks blind spots and flashes turn signals.
But this truck isn’t designed to be an entirely driverless one. The truck’s infrared driver-monitoring camera watches for eye and head position. You can glance at a passenger or consult a navigation screen — but if you look away for more than a few seconds, LEDs illuminate blue on the steering wheel rim, a transparent command to get your eyes back on the road. If you ignore prompts, the rim flashes red, and the system disengages and reverts to hands-on control.
As Tesla faces a federal investigation and lawsuits over fatal accidents involving its Autopilot system, shaking public confidence in robotic cars, could a pared-down approach like the one described — variously called “partial autonomy” or “driver assistance” systems — be the more realistic future of hands-free driving?
This type of system, more like a no-nonsense chaperone than one you would find in a fully robotic car, is a necessary component for top scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s forthcoming ratings of partial-autonomous tech; high ratings from the independent nonprofit are prized. And though General Motors is taking the lead with their Super Cruise system, they not alone; Ford, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are making similar attempts.
Super Cruise combines minutely detailed, 3-D laser-scanned roadway maps with cameras, radar and onboard GPS. By the end of this year, the company intends to expand the system’s network to two-way undivided highways for the first time and double its total operational domain to 400,000 miles. Doing so would allow hands-free driving on some of North America’s most epic byways, such as the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 66 and the Trans-Canada Highway.
None of this means that car companies are abandoning the dream of fully autonomous cars. In addition to Tesla, G.M.’s Cruise division, Alphabet’s Waymo and Argo AI continue to develop and test robotaxis, with human safety operators aboard, in cities including Miami and Austin, Texas. Cruise has begun charging fares for robotaxi rides in modified Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco and is mapping Dubai with the hope of starting a robotaxi program there next year.
But as fully driverless technology has faltered, so has faith in such technology. “The systems work great, right up until they don’t,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor in the Schools of Law and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, who has advised the federal government on autonomous vehicles. “We don’t have a full sense of the winning combo to cover most of the driving people do.”
In addition, Cruise temporarily halted and recalled its 80-car fleet for a software fix following a two-car collision that injured two occupants in June. A G.M. public filing noted that law enforcement had cited the human-driven car for being mostly at fault, including for speeding, and that the company’s robotaxis had, before the collision, safely executed nearly 125,000 left-hand turns through gaps in oncoming traffic.
David Harkey, president of I.I.H.S., said that the industry’s reality check over the technical challenges, and attendant public disillusionment, is masking genuine progress. For one, the building blocks of partial autonomy cars are already in every showroom. Automated emergency braking is standard on every new car as of September, thanks to a voluntary agreement forged in 2016 among automakers, I.I.H.S. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Such radar- or camera-linked brakes have cut police-reported rear-end collisions by a striking 50 percent, Mr. Harkey of the I.I.H.S. said, according to their research, adding that automated pedestrian braking has reduced the number of car-human collisions by 30 percent versus cars without the feature. And anti-lock brakes; cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors to manage blind spot and lane departure monitors; and adaptive cruise control have become standard as well.
“We saw that as beneficial tech, and the same will be true for some new tech. We will continue to push to get more features on more models to save more lives and prevent crashes,” Mr. Harkey said.
The trick, he said, is to build on that promise, with systems that measurably boost safety but keep human drivers in the loop.
“These are driver assistance systems, not driver replacement systems. Some consumers don’t know the difference,” he said.
For its part, the I.I.H.S. is testing what it calls “partial-autonomous” cars (a different term for “driver-assisted”). This fall, the nonprofit organization plans to release its first “Safeguard Ratings” to help guide consumers and spur the industry to integrate the most effective features.
A top “Good” rating will require a driver monitoring system that checks both a driver’s gaze and hand position. A driver with a coffee in one hand and an iPhone in the other won’t be prepared to retake the wheel. Other criteria include escalating visual, audible or haptic alerts to get a driver’s attention, and a fail-safe procedure to safely slow or halt the vehicle if the system is misused or to aid an incapacitated driver. (Super Cruise and some similar systems integrate many of those features.) The I.I.H.S. prefers that systems have drivers initiate any automated lane changes to keep them engaged in the process.
One early study, though, points to potential barriers for driver-assisted tech to achieve that “Good” rating. The recent shortage of chips has made it harder for the I.I.H.S. to gather and test relatively newfangled cars and has forced G.M. to temporarily halt installation of Super Cruise. Nonetheless, in a 2020 collaborative survey with M.I.T., the I.I.H.S. found that Volvo S90’s system (which lacks driver monitoring) led subjects to drive faster, look away more often and use more hand-held devices, signs of potential driver inattention.
In Germany, Mercedes has begun pushing boundaries with its new Drive Pilot, which legally allows a driver to perform nondriving tasks — checking email, even watching a movie — but monitors the driver and alerts when to retake the wheel. I.I.H.S. divides these sorts of systems into levels of automation, from zero (no automation) to five (full automation). Experts see Level 3 (some automation, but with a driver at the ready) as the diciest of the levels, a limbo zone compared with Level 5 cars that are truly robotic. For now, Drive Pilot can operate only on certain highways at speeds up to 37 miles per hour. Mercedes is seeking certification to offer the system in the United States next year.
Taking a different approach in marketing, G.M. and other companies have begun downplaying safety gains and citing reduced driver workloads, especially in wearying commutes and traffic.
“Owners feel more refreshed, they feel more relaxed, yet they are still attentive,” Mario Maiorana, the chief engineer at Super Cruise, said.
G.M. engineers say that safe and responsible deployment has guided every decision, including a delayed Super Cruise rollout in 2017, even as the company faced mounting criticism for not keeping pace with Tesla’s Autopilot.
The next test is G.M.’s Ultra Cruise, which the company intends to debut on the Cadillac Celestiq, a six-figure electric flagship sedan, late next year. The system is designed to ultimately deliver hands-free driving on 3.2 million miles of roadway — nearly every inch of paved road in the United States and Canada.
Jason Ditman, Ultra Cruise’s chief engineer, said the systems must work with full transparency and consistency to instill confidence among owners and the public.
“If you think it’s hard to get someone to let go of the steering wheel on highways,” Mr. Ditman said, imagine a snowy country lane or crowded city street.
G.M. says Ultra Cruise will stop and start at traffic lights and stop signs, autonomously follow navigation routes, do close-object avoidance of vehicles and pedestrians, even self-park in driveways. The machine learning system will identify dicey scenarios and upload data to continuously improve performance, and G.M. can remotely shut down use of the system on any road where the company is not confident of performance. G.M. claims the system will eventually handle about 95 percent of driving, aside from complex scenarios such as multilane roundabouts.
Despite high-profile crashes, Prof. Smith believes excessive focus on drawbacks of driver-assistance systems distorts the true crisis: Nearly 43,000 Americans died last year in motor-vehicle crashes, which kill roughly 1.3 million people worldwide annually.
“At least 100 people will die on U.S. roads today, and we’re not going to hear about them,” he said. “Chances are that not one will be killed in connection with a driver-assistance system.”