What is GM Ultra Cruise?

Jessica Shea Choksey | Oct 11, 2021

General Motors is raising the bar on autonomous driving with its new Ultra Cruise technology, due to arrive in 2023. Going beyond the automaker's current Super Cruise system, Ultra Cruise will enable hands-free driving in up to 95% of driving scenarios, including on suburban and city streets.

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Stand Out Technology

As advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicle capabilities become more sophisticated across the industry, technologies such as Ultra Cruise bring a higher level of safety and confidence to the driving experience. For GM, Ultra Cruise represents the next generation of assisted driving and makes significant headway toward the automaker's stated goal of "zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion."

GM hopes to ultimately enable its owners to travel "door-to-door" hands-free on all roads, large and small, across the U.S. That's a tall order. Even Tesla, the proverbial leader in EVs and autonomous technology, has faced unanticipated difficulty and delays in launching its long-touted Full Self Driving technology, which promises the same level of capability. But GM expects to offer Ultra Cruise in Cadillac models in 2023.

How does Ultra Cruise work?

Ultra Cruise activates with the touch of a button. Going beyond the current Super Cruise system, Ultra Cruise builds a full 360-degree three-dimensional view of the vehicle's surroundings by combining data from a suite of cameras, sensors, radar, and lidar. While navigating this virtual environment and providing user information through a dedicated display screen directly in front of the driver, the Ultra Cruise system offers the following functionalities:

  • Reacts to permanent traffic control devices
  • Follows internal navigation route
  • Maintains headway; follows speed limits
  • Supports automatic and on-demand lane change
  • Supports left and right-hand turns
  • Supports close object avoidance
  • Supports parking in residential driveways

Essentially, Ultra Cruise can handle all the routine maneuvers needed in everyday driving, from stopping at stop signs to merging onto a highway via on-ramp. Owners can expect this list of capabilities to expand in the future with new features, functions, and services delivered via over-the-air updates (OTA).

In terms of driver involvement, Ultra Cruise is hands-free but does require the driver to stay alert. The system tracks the driver's gaze with a Driver Attention Camera System to ensure that they are paying attention to the road ahead, even if their hands are on their lap. Because GM considers Ultra Cruise a Level 2 autonomous system, the automaker expects the driver to retake control of the vehicle at any time, such as in an emergency or when the vehicle enters an area incompatible with the system’s capabilities.

Ultra Cruise communicates with the driver through a Human Machine Interface (HMI) display screen, letting them know when they need to be in control of the vehicle. This key component of Ultra Cruise ensures that the driver and the system share the same understanding of the road ahead.

Ultra Cruise vs. Super Cruise

While the existing Super Cruise system allows the driver to remain hands-free on compatible highways, Ultra Cruise gives the vehicle the additional ability to drive autonomously on city streets and in-town roads. The new system builds on the existing technology.

Ultra Cruise will operate on more than two million miles of roadways across North America at the time of launch. That's about ten times more than the current Super Cruise system. GM says Ultra Cruise will eventually cover 3.4 million miles of highways and city streets in the U.S. and Canada.

GM will offer both Super Cruise and Ultra Cruise across the GM product line to provide consumers with Level 2 semi-autonomous driving at varying price points. The more advanced and expensive Ultra Cruise system will initially appear in premium models from Cadillac. At the same time, GM plans to make Super Cruise available to an expanding list of other vehicles in its product portfolio.

Limitations

Intending to handle 95% of driving situations, Ultra Cruise has limitations in specific scenarios. The system may run into issues in the following circumstances:

  • Roadway construction zones that require lane shifts
  • Multi-lane roundabouts or roadway anomalies that may be confusing to navigate
  • Four-way stop intersections that often require drivers who arrive simultaneously to make eye contact to acknowledge right-of-way
  • Inclement weather

In these situations, Ultra Cruise may alert the driver with a light on the steering wheel to take temporary control before it will re-engage. This is considered a "non-urgent escalation" instead of an emergency in which the driver has to make a sudden maneuver to avoid danger. If the driver does not initially respond to the steering wheel light, the alert will become a flashing red before the system brings the vehicle to a safe stop.

From a cost standpoint, it is unclear how much GM will charge for the Ultra Cruise system. But since it will first appear on Cadillac models, it may be one of the pricier bells and whistles on the automaker’s tech roster.

Summary

GM's new Ultra Cruise system expands upon the capabilities of its Super Cruise technology, but does not supply Level 3 autonomous driving capability. Drivers must still pay attention and take control of the vehicle when necessary. Nevertheless, this technology promises to make the driving experience safer and more convenient with few apparent drawbacks. And with OTA updates, it will only get better over time.

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