Test driving GM, Ford and Tesla ‘hands-free’ systems


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

Lincoln

DETROIT – It’s hard to let go. Even if the major automakers want to make it easier.

Technologies that can control vehicle acceleration, braking and steering are being rapidly deployed by car companies. In some cases, allowing drivers to lighten up the miles on the steering wheel or pedals at the same time.

The systems, formally known as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), have the potential to unlock new revenue streams for businesses while reducing driver fatigue and improving road safety. But automakers have largely built their systems independently of each other, without industry standards from federal regulators. That means years into development, “hands-free” or “semi-autonomous” in the hands of rival automakers could look very different.

To be clear, no vehicle on sale today is self-driving or self-driving. Drivers must always pay attention. Current ADAS mostly use a set of cameras, sensors and map data to assist the driver and monitor the driver’s attention.

Along with ADAS, it is the most discussed car manufacturer Tesla, which features a range of technologies it casually calls “autopilot” and “full self-driving capability,” among other things. (The vehicles are not fully driven.) But General Motors, Ford Motor and others are rapidly releasing or improving their systems and expanding to new vehicles.

I’ve recently tested ADAS from Tesla, GM and Ford. Their systems are among the most available and dynamic on the market. However, none of them were 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 originally tested GM’s system on a closed track a decade ago, and the automaker’s years of developing Super Cruise have clearly paid off in overall performance, safety and clear driver communication. The system is the best performing and most consistent.

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

The system allows drivers to operate “hands-free” when driving over 400,000 pre-mapped miles in the US and Canada. (Ford has mapped 150,000 miles, and Tesla’s system works hypothetically on any freeway).

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

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Super Cruise is a pioneer in highway driving and can handle most challenges, including curves and many construction sites. Its most recent updates have also added automatic lane changes, which work quite well to maintain a set speed while avoiding slower vehicles.

Over several hundred miles of driving the system, I was regularly able to engage Super Cruise for over 30 minutes, although one period stretched over an hour without having to take control of the vehicle. When Super Cruise was turned off, it would usually be available again a few minutes if not seconds later.

According to GM, most of the problems were due to outdated map data required by the system to function. When construction is just finished or more heavy duty work is being done temporarily, GM’s system defaults to handing control back to the driver until the road can be properly mapped.

GM says it has produced more than 40,000 Super Cruise-equipped vehicles, though not all of them represent active users, and has racked up an additional 45 million hands-free miles.

The price of the system varies by vehicle and make — $2,500 for a Cadillac, for example — and includes a subscription fee of $25 a month or $250 a 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 signal capabilities, both systems include in-vehicle infrared cameras to ensure drivers are paying attention. But if GM’s “driver” system is capable and safe, Ford’s is still a teenager learning, albeit very quickly.

Ford’s system – marketed for the Ford BlueCruise and ActiveGlide Lincoln – was first available in July 2021, although the company has already rolled out the systems to more than 109,000 vehicles registered with more than 35 million hands-free kilometers through the end of November.

Ford system prices vary by make and vehicle. It can be part of optional packages that cost about $2,000 and include other features for the 2023 Ford F-150 and Mustang Mach-E. Like GM, it requires a subscription after trials.

Like GM, Ford’s system works well on highways…that is, until it doesn’t. It’s less predictable and struggles particularly with bigger or sharper curves, construction sites and other circumstances a human driver could easily handle.

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

Ford

I was able to ride Ford’s system hands-free on my test drives, which were about 20 minutes and 25 miles on I-75 and construction-filled I-94 in rural and urban Michigan.

That’s a problem when you’re trying to alleviate driver fatigue and increase driver confidence in those systems.

“Randomly turning off when you’re approaching a curve in the road is not enough,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, which specializes in advanced and emerging automotive technologies.

Chris Billman, Ford’s principal ADAS vehicle systems integration engineer, emphasized that the company is being very cautious with its system at this stage. Despite warnings to regain control, the system is designed to remain operational until the driver takes over.

Billman said the system is deactivated on the freeway’s biggest curves because it’s not currently designed to slow the vehicle before a curve, something Super Cruise introduced in 2017. That’s expected to improve with the system’s next major update, starting early next year.

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

Ford

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

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

The Ford and GM systems would likely hit a temporary concrete construction barrier if I didn’t get caught on a big S-curve road near Detroit and let loose.

Super Cruise and BlueCruise both disengaged multiple times for what seemed like no reason, only to quickly re-engage afterwards. The Super Cruise also attempted to merge into a breakdown lane or median in a recently completed construction zone, while the Ford performed a similar maneuver in the middle of a curve.

And, of course, no system works like Tesla on city streets.

Then there’s Tesla

Tesla’s technology is by far the most ambitious of the three, and it works well on the highway. But they can be unnerving, if not dangerous, on city streets, specifically 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 when you buy a vehicle, or a monthly subscription later will cost between $99 and $199 depending on the vehicle, according to Tesla’s website.

In a Tesla Model 3 built in 2019 I was able to use three Tesla levels of the system with different functionality. Driving with FSD Beta (version 10.69.3.1) was (and has been) one of the most stressful times of my life. a lot!).

In a limited freeway test, Tesla’s systems performed very well. The trip included automatic lane changes and navigation-based exits, although it missed an exit ramp due to traffic. GM and Ford do not bundle navigation with ADAS.

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

One of my biggest issues with Tesla’s system on the highway was how often it required me to “check in” — an action that requires pulling on the steering wheel to demonstrate 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 doesn’t disconnect.

Tesla FSD Beta - an experiment on public roads

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

Unlike Ford and GM, which prominently display when the system is activated, Tesla’s only indication that ADAS is activated is a small steering wheel icon – smaller than a dime – at the top left of the vehicle’s center screen. (The Tesla Model 3 does not have a display screen in front of the driver.)

This means that to confirm whether the system is activated or not, the driver must actually look away from the road. And if the system is deactivated, it doesn’t communicate that well, leaving the driver unaware and worried when the system is on.

These issues became even more glaring while the FSD Beta was running on the surface streets. In addition to the problems on the highways, the system – as documented in several YouTube videos – has difficulties in some turns.

Add what is known locally as a “Michigan left” – a center turn intersection – and the system becomes the equivalent, if not dangerous, of a young learner driver. At one point while performing such a maneuver, the Tesla stopped in not one lane of traffic, but three lanes before passing the system I was trying to turn into.

On the straight, busy streets of suburban Detroit, Tesla’s system performed well. But the experience was lacking in recognizing the nuances of human drivers, such as stopping for others to enter a lane. It also had some difficulty with lane changes and seemed to get lost when lane markings weren’t available.

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

Elon Musk has promised for several years that vehicles would be fully self-driving. In a final argument in response to a lawsuit filed in California, Tesla said that a “failure” to realize such a “long-term and unintended goal” would not amount to fraud and that full autonomous driving would only be achieved “through continuity.” and drastic improvements.”

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