Weekly Brief: Unregulated Driverless Cars About to Happen in US?

General Motors unveiled a new driving system last week that could radically reshape the race to put self-driving consumer cars on the road in North America.

Dubbed Ultra Cruise, the system is designed to enable hands-free driving in 95% of all driving scenarios, including highways, city streets, subdivision streets and paved rural roads throughout the US and Canada. That amounts to two million miles of coverage, with the capacity to grow to nearly three-and-a-half million miles thanks to over-the-air updates after Ultra Cruise debuts in 2023.

Like GM’s existing advanced driver assistance system Super Cruise, Ultra Cruise will harness a combination of cameras, radars and LiDAR to develop 360-degree, three-dimensional statistical representations of the environment surrounding vehicles. What’s new here is the sheer number of sensors onboard, including a new integrated LiDAR behind the windshield, which GM says will allow Ultra Cruise to create redundancies in critical areas and thus detect and anticipate driving maneuvers in more complicated scenarios. Super Cruise is limited to selected highways, while Ultra Cruise, purportedly, will go anywhere there’s pavement.

GM was keeping mum last week on just how expensive Ultra Cruise will be or whether it will offer a subscription-based model or an upfront flat fee. The carmaker did say that its two hands-free driver-assist systems will coexist in the company’s lineup come 2023, with Super Cruise available on more mainstream vehicles and Ultra Cruise reserved for premium entries only. Cadillac plans to be the first brand to roll out Ultra Cruise next year.

Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen. The semiconductor crisis is one concern. Last week GM confirmed that it has halted all Super Cruise installations on 2022 Cadillac Escalade SUVs because of the chip shortage. It also scrapped plans to install Super Cruise on the Cadillac 2022 CT4 and CT5. It’s possible that GM will prioritize Ultra Cruise over Super Cruise next year. It’s equally possible that there won’t be enough chips for either or that Super Cruise gets priority given that it’s already an established product. GM did not address the chip shortage last week when discussing Ultra Cruise.

There’s also the potential for regulatory setbacks, given that semi-autonomous driving systems are increasingly under the microscope in the Department of Transportation and US Congress owing to a number of fatal crashes involving Tesla Autopilot. Back in August 2021 two senators called Tesla to task for its “potentially deceptive and unfair” claims around full self-driving capabilities, which led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to launch a formal investigation. The National Traffic Safety Board has strongly urged NHTSA to require Tesla to include driver monitoring technology with Autopilot to ensure that drivers are paying attention while the technology is engaged.

It’s tough to say whose behavior has been more reprehensible on this front, Elon Musk, who has misrepresented his company’s semi-autonomous technology as capable of full self-driving, or the US government, which has failed time and again over the past decade to step up and create safety protocols around a technological revolution that everyone can see coming. Now self-driving Waymo vehicles are on the road in Arizona and San Francisco. GM Cruise announced last week that it plans to have an active fleet of one million self-driving cars by 2030 and plans to “scale the business rapidly” in the coming years, according to CEO Dan Ammann. Tesla plans to roll out its Full Self Driving to 1,000 new drivers this week. GM is upgrading from Super Cruise to Ultra Cruise and still we have zero regulatory action from the US government. It’s remarkable!

If this were to change and the government were to enact stricter safety regulations around autonomous and semi-autonomous driving systems, it’s possible that Ultra Cruise could be further delayed to meet these new standards. Even if this were to happen, it probably won’t be more than a year until Ultra Cruise is on the road. Which means that the era of nearly self-driving consumer cars is nearly upon us.

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