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GM vs. Jim: Super Cruise Rewrites "Roadhouse Blues"

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 03, 2017

Jim Morrison’s stentorian incantation at the start of “Roadhouse Blues” helps that tune stand as one of the great rock anthems of the ‘70’s, but it appears that the age of autonomous cars has turned the tables on Jim. The admonition is no longer “keep your eyes on the road your hands upon the wheel.” The message from General Motors’ new Super Cruise technology is: "Keep your eyes on the road or you’ll have to keep your hands on the wheel."

At a time when car companies from Tesla Motors to Mercedes-Benz are trying to figure out how to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel, GM, working in collaboration with Seeing Machines, has found a way to loosen our grip on that wheel and open a controversial path to Level 3 automated driving. It’s a ballsy move and one that gives GM a slight edge on Tesla for one aspect of highway driving. (We haven’t heard about a Super Cruise passing mode just yet.) - General Motors Shows Off New Hands-free Super Cruise System -

Why is Level 3 automated driving controversial? Level 3 automation relies on the driver being prepared to retake control of the vehicle – unlike Levels 4 (defined automated driving zones) and 5, which eliminates the human driver entirely. Tesla and Mercedes have steering wheel sensors and warnings designed to get the driver to return their hands to the wheel or to disable automated driving if the driver refuses or is unable to do so.

Super Cruise-enhanced cruise control uses driver-facing cameras mounted in the steering wheel to monitor the eyes and face of the driver to ensure the driver is paying attention to the passage of the vehicle even if hands are not on the wheel. The solution from Seeing Machines has been around for nearly 10 years and was first applied in the mining industry, which helps to explain Seeing Machines headquarters being located in Canberra, Australia.

Australia’s resource extraction-based economy has represented an ideal market for automated driving technology development. The Seeing Machines solution helps vehicle makers overcome a widely seen challenge for semi-automated driving: drivers of self-driving vehicles tend to fall asleep. It’s a fact.

For this and other reasons, several car makers have said that they intend to skip Level 3 automation. Airline pilots speaking at automotive events routinely recommend against Level 3 automation. Let’s make no mistake, GM is pushing the envelope like no other auto maker in this respect.

The innovation from Seeing Machines creatively overcomes the customer resistance to “driver monitoring.” With the implementation of the technology in select Cadillac vehicles, the message is: “If you let us monitor you, we will let you take your hands off the wheel.” For most drivers, that’s a reasonable deal and one that overcomes any paranoia about being monitored.

The move to bring Super Cruise and the Seeing Machine driver monitoring system to market also comes at a time when regulators and legislators are seeking to set policy governing autonomous vehicle development. This innovation highlights the need for regulators to focus on the ends not the means.

An overly prescriptive regulatory regime might either specify or forbid a system such as Seeing Machines’. Let’s hope regulators have the good sense to leave problem solving to the engineers.

There were other potholes in Seeing Machines’ path to market including the company’s size and its chosen partner. When GM and Seeing Machines first came together the tiny Australian startup was seen as too small to support a major launch with GM. GM introduced Seeing Machines to steering wheel provider Takata.

Of course, the introduction to Takata took place long before Takata airbags were to become weaponized.  Following some come-to-Jesus sessions in Japan, those bumps in the road have been left far behind.

We’ve yet to see how consumers and insurers will react to the new technology from GM. It is clear that the company is willing to take chances to innovate and compete in the realm of automated driving. GM is not yet offering the operational scope of Tesla’s Autopilot and has not made any Volvo-like pledge to accept liability for misuse or failure of its automated systems, but GM is finally going where no car maker has gone before in the field of automation. Bravo.

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