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Test drive 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 departure, lane keeping and predictive speed assist.

Lincoln

DETROIT – Letting go is hard. Although major car manufacturers want to make it easier.

Car companies are rapidly expanding technologies that can control the acceleration, braking and steering of a vehicle. In some cases, allowing drivers to ease off the wheel or pedal for miles at a 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, without industry-standard guidelines from federal regulators. That means years in development, “hands-free”[ads1]; or “semi-autonomous” could mean something entirely different in the hands of rival automakers.

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

The car manufacturer most often discussed together with ADAS is Tesla, which has a number of technologies it casually calls “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving Capability,” among other names. (The vehicles don’t completely drive themselves.) But General Motors, Ford Motor and others are rapidly launching or improving their own systems and extending them to new vehicles.

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

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

GM’s Super Cruise

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

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

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

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

Michael Wayland/CNBC

Super Cruise is the leader when it comes to highway driving and tackles most challenges, including curves and many construction zones. The latest updates also added automatic lane changes which work quite well to maintain a set speed by avoiding slower vehicles.

Over hundreds of miles before driving the system, I was able to use Super Cruise regularly for up to 30 minutes, even stretching a trip to more than an hour without ever having to take control of the vehicle. When Super Cruise was disengaged, it would usually be available again minutes, if not seconds, later.

Most of the problems I experienced were likely due to outdated map data that the system requires to function, according to GM. When there is recently completed construction or heavier temporary work being done, GM’s system will by default return control back to the driver until the road has been properly pre-mapped.

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

Prices for the system vary based on vehicle and brand — $2,500 for a Cadillac, for example — and have a subscription cost of $25 per month or $250 per year after a free trial.

Ford’s BlueCruise

Ford’s system is the newest of the three automakers and is similar to GM’s. In addition to advance mapping and indicated capabilities, 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 teenager learning, albeit very quickly.

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

Prices for Ford’s system vary based on brand 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 trial periods.

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

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

Ford

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

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

“Having it randomly disengage as you approach curves in the road is not good enough,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, which specializes in advanced and emerging automotive technologies.

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

Billman said the system disengages on most major freeway curves because it’s not currently designed to slow the vehicle down ahead of a curve — something Super Cruise launched with in 2017. That’s expected to be improved with the system’s next major update, which begins early next year.

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

Ford

Ford can also improve the system’s interactions with the driver. GM uses a light bar on the steering wheel and communication in the driver’s cluster – the best communication features among the three current systems.

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

Both the Ford and GM systems probably would have hit a temporary concrete construction barrier if I hadn’t pulled over and disengaged on a big S-curve road near Detroit.

Super Cruise and BlueCruise both disengaged multiple times for no reason, only to disengage quickly afterwards. The Super Cruise also attempted to merge into a breakdown lane or median in a recently completed construction zone, while the Fords did a similar maneuver halfway through a curve.

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 highway. But it can be unnerving, if not dangerous, on city streets, and specifically turn 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 you purchase a vehicle, or a monthly subscription option opted for later costs between $99 and $199 depending on the vehicle, according to Tesla’s website.

I was able to use three Tesla levels of the system with varying functionality in a Tesla Model 3 built in 2019. Driving with FSD Beta (version 10.69.3.1) was among the most stressful driving moments of my life (and I have ). a lot!).

During a limited test on the highway, Tesla’s systems worked very well. The trip included automatic lane change and navigation-based exit, although it exceeded one exit ramp due to traffic. GM and Ford do not currently connect navigation to 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 asked me to “check in”—an action that requires pulling the steering wheel to prove the driver is physically in the driver’s seat and paying attention. The “check-ins” take some time to get used to so that the system does not disconnect.

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

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

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

This means that to confirm whether the system is activated, the driver must actually look away from the road. And if the system disconnects, it doesn’t communicate very well, leaving the driver unaware when the system is operating and anxious.

Such problems were even more striking while FSD Beta was operating on surface streets. In addition to the highway problems, the system – as documented in countless YouTube videos – has problems with certain turns.

Add what is known locally as a “Michigan left”—a median U-turn crossover—and the system becomes the equivalent of a young, if not dangerous, student driver. At one point while performing such a maneuver, the Tesla stalled across not one, but three lanes as it attempted to make the turn before I took over the system.

On straight, crowded streets in suburban Detroit, Tesla’s system worked mostly well. But it lacked the experience to recognize human driver nuances such as stopping to let others into a lane. It also had some problems with lane changes and seemed to get lost when lane markings 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 for this article.

CEO Elon Musk has promised for several years that the vehicles will be able to drive themselves fully. In a recent argument in response to a lawsuit filed in California, Tesla said its “failure” to realize such a “long-term, aspirational goal” did not constitute fraud and that it would only achieve full autonomous driving “through constant and rigorous improvements. “



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