Test hands-free systems from GM, Ford and Tesla

The 2023 Lincoln Corsair will offer the company’s hands-free, next-generation ActiveGlide (ADAS) advanced driver assistance system for highway driving, including lane changes, lane positioning and predictive speed assist.

Lincoln

DETROIT – Letting go is hard. Even if big automakers want to make it easier.

Automakers are rapidly adding technology that can control a vehicle’s acceleration, braking, and steering. In some cases, the driver can loosen the steering wheel or pedals miles per hour.

The systems – formerly known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) – have the potential to create new revenue streams for businesses while reducing driver fatigue and improving road safety. But automakers built their systems largely independently, without industry-standard guidelines from federal agencies. That means years in development, “hands-free” or “semi-autonomous” can mean something else entirely in the hands of competing automakers.

To be clear, no vehicle for sale today is self-driving or autonomous. Drivers must always be careful. Current ADAS mostly use an array of cameras, sensors and map data to assist the driver and also monitor the driver’s alertness.

The car manufacturer that is most often discussed next to ADAS is Tesla, which has a suite of technologies it haphazardly calls “autopilot” and “full self-driving capability,” among others. (The vehicles don’t drive themselves entirely.) But General Motors, Ford engine and others are quick to release or improve their own systems and extend them to new vehicles.

I have recently tested ADAS from Tesla, GM and Ford. Their systems are among the most readily available and dynamic on the market. However, none of them were remotely flawless during my time behind the wheel.

And even small differences between systems can have a big impact on driver safety and confidence.

GM’s Super Cruise

I first tested GM’s system on a closed track a decade ago, and the automaker’s years of development of the Super Cruise have clearly paid off in overall performance, safety, and clear communication with the driver. It is the most powerful and consistent system.

GM first released Super Cruise in 2017 on a Cadillac sedan — two years after Tesla’s Autopilot — before expanding to 12 vehicles in recent years. The goal is to make Super Cruise available for 22 cars, trucks and SUVs worldwide by the end of 2023.

The system allows drivers to drive “hands-free” while navigating more than 400,000 miles of pre-mapped divided highways in the United States and Canada. (Ford has mapped 150,000 miles, and Tesla’s system will hypothetically work on any freeway.)

When the steering wheel light bar illuminates green on GM’s Super Cruise, drivers can take their hands off the wheel.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

Super Cruise is the front runner when it comes to freeway driving and can handle most challenges including curves and lots of construction sites. The latest updates also added automatic lane changes, which work quite well for maintaining a set speed by dodging slower vehicles.

Over hundreds of miles with the system, I was able to regularly activate Super Cruise for more than 30 minutes and even extend a stint to more than an hour without ever having to take control of the vehicle. When Super Cruise detached, it was usually available again minutes if not seconds later.

According to GM, most of the problems I had were probably due to outdated map data that the system needs to operate. By default, when a newly completed construction or heavier temporary work is underway, GM’s system returns control to the driver until the road is properly pre-mapped.

GM says it has produced more than 40,000 vehicles equipped with Super Cruise, although not all of them represent active users, and has accumulated more than 45 million hands-free miles.

Pricing for the system varies by vehicle and make — $2,500 for a Cadillac, for example — and carries a subscription fee of $25 per month or $250 per year after a free trial period.

Ford’s BlueCruise

Ford’s system is the newest of the three automakers and is similar to GM’s. In addition to pre-mapping and specified functions, both systems have in-vehicle infrared cameras to ensure drivers are alert. But if GM’s system is a capable and confident “driver,” Ford’s is still a teenage learner, albeit very quickly.

Ford’s system – marketed as Ford BlueCruise and ActiveGlide for Lincoln – first became available in July 2021, although the company has already expanded the systems to more than 109,000 registered vehicles with more than 35 million hands-free driving miles by the end of November.

Ford’s system prices vary by make and vehicle. It may be part of optional packages costing around $2,000 that include other features for the 2023 Ford F-150 and Mustang Mach-E. Like GM, it requires a subscription after trial periods.

Also, like GM, Ford’s system works well on the freeway… until it stops working. It’s less predictable, and particularly struggles with larger or sharper turns, construction sites, and other circumstances that a human driver could easily handle.

Ford’s BlueCruise system as shown on a Mustang Mach-E electric crossover.

ford

The longest I was able to drive hands-free with Ford’s system during my test drives, which were mostly on I-75 and a construction-laden I-94 in rural and urban Michigan, was 20 minutes and about 25 miles.

This is a problem when trying to reduce driver fatigue and increase driver confidence in such systems.

“It’s not good enough if it randomly disengages as you approach corners in the road,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Guidehouse Insights, who specializes in advanced and emerging automotive technologies.

Chris Billman, Ford’s chief engineer for ADAS vehicle systems integration, stressed that the company is being overly cautious with its system at this stage. Despite warnings to retake control, the system is designed to remain operational until the driver takes over.

According to Billman, the system turns off on most major freeway bends because it’s not currently designed to slow the vehicle down before a bend – something Super Cruise launched with in 2017. That’s set to improve with the system’s next major update, which begins early next year.

Ford’s BlueCruise system is displayed on the driver information cluster of an F-150 pickup truck.

ford

Ford could also improve its system’s interactions with the driver. GM uses a light bar on the steering wheel and driver-cluster communications — the best communications features among the three current systems.

That’s not to say that Super Cruise isn’t still learning.

Both Ford and GM systems would likely have encountered a temporary concrete construction barrier if I hadn’t taken over and detached myself on a major S-curve roadway near Detroit.

Super Cruise and BlueCruise both disengaged several times for seemingly no reason, only to quickly re-engage thereafter. Super Cruise also attempted to merge into a hard shoulder or median in a newly completed construction zone, while Ford performed a similar maneuver midway through a corner.

And, of course, none of the systems work on city streets like Tesla’s.

Then there is Tesla

Tesla’s technology is by far the most ambitious of the three and works well on the Autobahn. But it can be unnerving, if not dangerous, on city streets, especially when turning into traffic.

Tesla vehicles come standard with an ADAS known as Autopilot. However, owners can upgrade the system with additional features for a fee. The Full Self-Driving (FSD) upgrade currently costs $15,000 at the time of purchasing a vehicle, or a later monthly subscription costs between $99 and $199 depending on the vehicle, according to the Tesla website.

I was able to use three Tesla stages of the system with different functionality in a 2019 Tesla Model 3. Driving the FSD Beta (version 10.69.3.1) has been one of the most stressful driving moments of my life (and I’ve had a lot!).

During a limited freeway test, Tesla’s systems worked very well. The ride involved automatic lane changes and navigation-based exit, despite crossing an exit ramp due to traffic. GM and Ford do not currently link navigation to ADAS.

Tesla’s ADAS is also able to recognize traffic lights on city streets and act accordingly, which was very impressive.

One of my biggest issues with Tesla’s system on the freeway was how frequently it prompted me to “check in” — an action that requires a pull on the steering wheel to prove that the driver is physically in the driver’s seat and paying attention. The “check-ins” take some getting used to, so that the system does not come loose.

Tesla FSD Beta — an experiment on public roads

I also struggled with the car’s communication about when the system was activated.

Unlike Ford and GM, which clearly indicate when the system is activated, the only indication that Tesla’s ADAS is activated is a tiny steering wheel icon – smaller than a dime – in the top left of the vehicle’s center screen. (The Tesla Model 3 doesn’t have screens in front of the driver.)

This means that in order to confirm whether the system is activated, the driver must actually look away from the road. And when the system comes loose it doesn’t communicate very well, leaving the driver unaware of when the system is up and anxious.

Such problems were even more noticeable when FSD Beta operated on surface roads. In addition to the freeway problems, the system has difficulties with some curves, as documented in countless YouTube videos.

Add in what’s known locally as the “Michigan Left”—a mean U-Turn crossover—and the system morphs into the equivalent of a young, if not dangerous, learner driver. In one such maneuver, the Tesla stopped in not one, but three lanes at one point when attempting to turn before I overtook the system.

On straight, crowded streets in suburban Detroit, Tesla’s system worked largely well. But it lacked the experience to recognize nuances of human drivers, such as B. stopping to allow others access to a lane. It also had some trouble with lane changes and seemed to get lost when lane markers weren’t available.

All of these concerns are why no other company has released a system like Tesla’s FSD Beta, which has been criticized for using its customers as test mules. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

CEO Elon Musk promised for several years that the vehicles would be able to be fully self-driving. In a recent argument in response to a lawsuit filed in California, Tesla said its “failure” to achieve such a “long-term, ambitious goal” did not constitute cheating and that it will only achieve fully autonomous driving “through constant and autonomous driving.” would make consistent improvements.”

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