Self-driving cars this decade? Could be. Super Cruise, a suite of General Motors technologies that lets a car drive itself on some roads, could be ready by the middle of the decade, Cadillac says. It’s now 2012, so that means as little as three or four years from now. This is, GM suggests, a Cadillac that “is capable of fully automatic steering, braking and lane-centering in highway driving under certain optimal conditions.” It uses adaptive cruise control and lane-centering technologies that rely on an array of radar, ultrasononic and camera sensors, plus precise GPS map data.
General Motors’ press release has lots of qualifiers. The bottom line is that GM believes it can unleash a self-driving car that works, under optimal conditions, in a couple years. It appears that GM means on limited access roads with clearly defined lane markers, but also in crowded stop-and-go traffic, not just on wide-open rural interstates. A driver would still be behind the wheel ready to take over in case of a problem such as lane markings that disappear, rain or snow blocking the sensors, or possibly another car swerving across lanes so quickly they might confuse the array of sensors.
According to GM, the car would steer via enhanced lane departure warning (LDW) systems. BasicLDW systems beep or vibrate when the car crosses a lane marking, lane keep assist systems available now try to nudge the car back into lane though electric power steering or by light braking of one front wheel (it turns the car in that direction), while a self-driving car would proactively center the car, rather than bounce the car off the lane markings like a game of pong played with 4,000 pound icons.
What goes into the Caddy that zigs, and zags, without going off-road? GM lists these technologies as the building blocks of Super Cruise. Some substitutes could be used, for instance GM’s safety alert seat that buzzes on the side of the hazard, could be a vibrating steering wheel or even the annoying audio alerts used by some blind spot or lane departure systems.
- Full-speed range adaptive cruise control
- Lane departure warning
- Side blind zone alert
- Intelligent brake assist
- Forward collision alert
- Safety alert seat
- Automatic collision preparation
- Rear cross traffic alert
- Rear automatic braking
- Adaptive forward lighting (steerable headlamps)
- Rear vision camera with dynamic guidelines
- Head-up display (HUD)
- GPS map data
How much would Smart Cruise cost? GM and Ford have been world-class in driving down expenses and if it’s embedded as a single safety package it would carry a lower markup than individual options, which are more lucrative. The combination of technologies, projected ahead 3-5 years, would probably cost $5,000-$10,000. The single most expensive component is adaptive cruise control. The industry leader is Ford, with ACC priced at $1,000 now, but it only works down to 20 mph. Full-range ACC on high-end German and Japanese cars is $2,500-$3,000 and needs a second radar for close-distance work (i.e. for speeds under 20 mph) but it might be possible to swap in laser or ultrasound at lower cost. Assuming it arrives on a higher-end Cadillac, the cost-adder would be 10%-20% of the selling price.
GM says the sum of the all the technologies working together is what it calls “sensor fusion.” Gillette would call that “our last couple of razors.” Google, who is very publicly working on its own self-driving cars, so far straps all of the sensors onto the roof of the car (pictured above). It’s safe to assume that the sensors would be integrated into the car once it reaches full-scale production, however.
The insurance industry is yet to be heard from. The insurance industry freaks out at anything new and different because of its concerns for the safety of the insured, as well as to avoid unnecessary payouts. RelayRides, a car-sharing project that earns owners money for renting their cars out, is at odds with insurance companies who’ve threatened to cancel policies if owners rent out their cars — even when RelayRides says it will cover accident damage. (But only up to $1 million, the insurers note.)
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