Transportation

Cadillac, Tesla, Volvo: Who Leads in the Semi-Autonomous Race?

A number of carmakers are vying for autonomous technology, but pinpointing a defacto leader is difficult.

by Robert Duffer, Chicago Tribune / October 20, 2017

(TNS) -- Nearly 60 years ago, Chrysler introduced the first semi-automated driving feature in the 1958 Imperial. That cutting-edge land shark featured a convenience known as cruise control.

The dream of the self-driving car has shifted into reality and it won’t take another 60 years to have a car that can drive itself; Ford, Volvo, GM and other automakers — and non-automakers such as Apple, Uber and Google’s Waymo — are planning in the next five years for at least Level 4 automation in which the human driver does not have to intervene.

The old Imperial was considered Level 1. Level 5 is fully automated driving under all roadways and conditions.

But what are these systems and how do they work? Now nearly every automaker offers the basis for semi-automated driving with cameras and sensors to enable adaptive cruise control, self-parking, automatic emergency braking and some variation of lane keeping, which are classified by the Society of Automotive Engineers and governmental bodies as Level 2. The number of light-duty vehicles sold globally with Level 2 technology is expected to grow to 93 million by 2026 from 250,000 in 2017, according to Navigant Research.

Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Audi Traffic Jam Pilot, BMW Traffic Jam Assistant, Volvo Pilot Assist and Mercedes Distronic Plus are the most advanced Level 2 systems pushing into Level 3 and possibly 4.

The technology is there. It is the human side of things that is applying the brakes.

There are no solid safety rules for governing or launching semi-automated driving technology, and the lack of naming convention shared by automakers mucks up consumers’ understanding. There should be a demonstration by a certified tech of all technology before handing over the keys at the dealership, regardless of how simple it seems. Furthermore, systems that rely solely on cameras reading lane markings and radar reading nearby traffic are best suited for stop-and-go traffic on limited-access divided highways (with on- and off-ramps), not higher-speed cruising.

The temptation when the car takes over the wheel is for the driver to check his phone (which is what most drivers appear to be doing already), but Level 2 systems are not considered advanced enough for drivers to take eyes off the road for any significant time. There still needs to be a driver. So why bother?

For now, convenience. Soon enough, the technology will improve vehicle safety, traffic flow, accessibility to drivers with limited access, even increased fuel economy.

Three of the more advanced systems are the Cadillac Super Cruise, Volvo Pilot Assist and Tesla Autopilot.

Volvo Pilot Assist

To activate: left thumb on the left control pad of the steering wheel. The adaptive cruise icon appears illuminated on the bottom left of the dashboard, below the tachometer. It’s small but clear, unobtrusive but apparent. Set the adaptive cruise, then hit the right arrow button to activate lane keeping.

Not driving: Once activated, the person in the driver’s seat gets about 15 seconds of hands-free driving before the light blue-green icon turns red-orange and requires hands on the wheel. If the person doesn’t respond, a chime will ding. If the person still doesn’t respond, the system will coast the car to a stop with activated hazard lights.

Can do: speed up or down with the flow of traffic up to 80 mph. Can make a complete stop, but the gas pedal needs to be pressed to resume activation. Self-park, though it seems more adept at parallel parking than perpendicular.

Can’t do: change lanes. Use just cruise control without adaptive cruise. Must get software updates at authorized dealer.

In a word: tentative.

Models available: All except S60 and V60

Price: Included in Premium Package, $1,400.

Confidence level: 7.

Tesla Autopilot

The first and most audacious rollout of a semi-automated driver assist package has been the most scrutinized, especially since the crash in Florida of a driver killed using Autopilot when the car T-boned a semi making a left-hand turn in front of it. The National Transportation Safety Board faulted the driver for over-reliance on the technology but recommended automakers limit the accessibility of semi-automated features.

Autopilot, which we tested in both the Model X and Model S, is the system with the widest range and instilled the most confidence. Tesla has done a great job overcoming anxiety, with range and technology. But it has limitations that must be heeded.

Autopilot can be used on city streets as well as highways by relying on either lane markings or surrounding traffic via hardware consisting of eight cameras for 360-degree capability, radar (Autopilot 2.0) and over a dozen sensors.

To activate: Use the secondary stalk on the steering column, which isn’t as easy as controls on the wheel itself. The adaptive cruise icon will appear in gray in the top of the cluster; once set, the other icon of a steering wheel will appear. Once activated, it’ll turn blue and there will be a ding.

Not driving: If it can’t read the lines or there’s no surrounding traffic, the icons will turn orange, a warning indicating hands on the wheel will appear followed by an audible alert until hands get on the wheel. Still no hands? The warnings intensify, hazards will activate and the system will coast the car to a stop.

Can do: speed up or down with traffic flow up to 90 mph on highways; off highways, it’s limited to 5 mph over the posted speed limit. It can change lanes with indicator signal; over-the-air software updates at home; park itself; remote back straight out of a parking spot or garage with the click of the fob.

Can’t do: not yet street legal for Level 4 or 5, though the hardware indicates the technology is there. It should be used only with an alert driver in the driver’s seat.

In a word: best.

Models available: all. Hardware for Enhanced Autopilot installed on models built after October 2016.

Price: $5,000 on delivery, $6,000 after purchase. Enhanced Autopilot is $8,000 on delivery, $10,000 when the software is ready.

Confidence level: 9.

Cadillac Super Cruise

Cadillac’s system adds another level of data and certainty with lidar mapping of over 130,000 miles of U.S. freeways, but it is therefore limited by GM to limited-access divided highways with on- and off-ramps.

The lidar system helps extend the vision of the car to better than 10 times the competitors, and it better keeps the car centered in its lane. While similar in design to Tesla’s, Super Cruise feels much more conservative than the half-dozen systems we’ve tested. That’s not a bad thing; it feels safe. Mapping is crucial to get to Level 3 and beyond, where the systems don’t need to rely on infrastructure as much.

To activate: as easy as setting the cruise control. But the gray icon that appears in the top of the cluster to indicate system readiness was ready about two-thirds of the time. We’d expect a higher degree of usability in lower-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic, or on more open freeways with fewer merging lanes.

Not driving: Super Cruise uses a nonrecording camera mounted on the top of the steering column to read the eyes and head position of the driver. If the camera detects the driver looking down at his phone or nodding off, the light bar integrated into the top of the steering wheel will flash green; all the driver has to do is look up at the road to resume hands-free driving. If the driver doesn’t, the bar will flash red, a chime will sound and the car will start to coast. The third level of escalation will put the hazards on, bring the car to a stop, and emergency services will be summoned through OnStar.

Can do: speed up or down with traffic flow of up to 85 mph; go down to a stop and restart; stays centered in the lane better than other systems; over-the-air software updates; we didn’t test self-parking features.

Can’t do: off-highway driving. Change lanes.

In a word: conservative.

Models available: 2018 CT6 in Premium Luxury or Platinum trim (standard)

Price: $5,000.

Confidence level: 8.

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