Super Cruise assistant chief engineer Jeff Miller explains all you need to know about the automotive industry’s first true hands-free driving assistance technology
What once seemed like science fiction is now a reality: the ability to drive with your hands off the steering wheel. That’s thanks to Super Cruise™* driver assistance technology, available on select General Motors vehicles. When learning about an innovative technology like Super Cruise, it’s only natural to have questions: What is it? How does it work? To find out these answers and more, we sat down with one of the experts involved: Super Cruise assistant chief engineer Jeff Miller. Read what he had to say below.
In the plainest terms, Super Cruise is the industry’s first true hands-free driver assistance technology, which enables hands-free driving on over 200,000 miles of compatible roads in the U.S. and Canada.
When we initially launched Super Cruise in 2017, we had mapped 130,000 miles of limited-access, divided highways. Think Interstate 75 or Interstate 96. In 2019, we went out and mapped what we call trunk roads. They’re still divided highways, so there’s a clear division between opposing traffic; however, there may be some at-grade crossings, railroad crossings, flashing yellow lights, those sorts of things. Adding those roads brings us up to a total of just over 200,000 miles of compatible roads.
We’re constantly working with the Department of Transportation for each state. Whenever there’s construction, we’re notified, and then when they’re done, we’re also notified. We’ll then send out our map supplier to remap those portions of the road, we’ll put those into our larger map files and we’ll download those to the vehicles. We’re pushing out new maps to the vehicles on almost a monthly basis. We want to deliver the freshest maps to the drivers as quickly as possible.
General Motors hired me straight out of college, and I’ve worked with the company ever since. I’ve had the privilege to work on some cutting-edge technologies, from performance vehicles to hybrid-electric vehicles, and now automated driving. I started with the Super Cruise team back in 2018 as the program engineering manager for full-size SUVs and pickups. Shortly after, my role was expanded to assistant chief engineer for Super Cruise. Now I’m more involved in leading the larger Super Cruise team and defining future strategies and rollout plans, while keeping the driver at the forefront of every decision.
One of the big ones was that we wanted Super Cruise to bring comfort and convenience to our drivers’ trips, whether that’s the daily commute or a longer road trip. It also needed to be intuitive to drive. And we wanted to provide true hands-free driving, where the driver has confidence in the system. We achieved this through the use of precision LiDAR map data, a Driver Attention System, and real-time cameras, sensors and GPS data.
It’s worth pointing out that Super Cruise is also a significant step in GM’s journey to enable our goal of zero emissions, zero crashes and zero congestion, as well as creating important connected vehicle technologies that enhance the driver’s experience.
Super Cruise provides comfort and convenience for highway driving, and really the biggest benefit is the ability to drive truly hands- and feet-free while using Super Cruise. That allows you to arrive at your destination less stressed and certainly less fatigued. In addition, great new features that we’ve launched, such as Automatic Lane Change and Super Cruise with trailering — which is going to be available soon on select light-duty pickup trucks — further enhance the driving experience.
As with any new technology, it does take some getting used to. I wasn’t sure what the system was capable of, or how it would react to different situations. Fortunately, because of the way we designed Super Cruise, becoming confident in the system’s capability only takes a few minutes.
The other thing that crosses your mind when you’re initially using Super Cruise is “What do I do with my hands?” They no longer need to be on the steering wheel, so what do you do with them? But you quickly relax and get used to putting them wherever it feels most comfortable.
I remember the first time my wife used Super Cruise. It was funny to watch because her hands hovered over the steering wheel, and she was pretty nervous letting go of the wheel. But much like my experience, that nervousness only lasted for the first couple of minutes, and she quickly relaxed and built confidence in the system and understood what it could and couldn’t do.
Stepping back, Super Cruise is the result of over five years of development, from the research stages all the way to development and validation. We made sure this technology worked safely and seamlessly, and that it was easy for our drivers to use. Throughout the design, development and validation process we used computer simulations and test benches. In addition, we did extensive testing in vehicles on closed courses, such as our Milford Proving Ground, as well as public roads.
Like I mentioned, we wanted Super Cruise to be intuitive. We made it so simple that it just requires pressing a single button on the steering wheel. When you first start a Super Cruise–equipped vehicle and begin driving down the road, you have to engage Adaptive Cruise Control.* Then, Super Cruise will automatically detect when you’re driving on a compatible road. Next, the Super Cruise icon will illuminate in white in the instrument cluster, which tells you that the system is available to use. Then just a single press of the Super Cruise button on the steering wheel will engage the system. You’ll know it’s operating when the steering wheel light bar turns green. You can take your hands off the wheel and foot off the pedal once that light bar turns green.
The Driver Attention System is there to ensure the driver is paying attention to the road at all times. It’s important in the event that Super Cruise disengages and needs to hand control back to the driver. There’s a camera located on top of the steering column that monitors the driver’s head position as well as their eye gaze to determine where they are looking. If they’re not looking at the road for a certain period of time, the system will alert the driver to try to get their attention back to the road. It’ll do that through visual alerts using the light bar. The light bar will flash, and if the driver doesn’t take control after that, they will hear some audible alerts through the speaker system, as well as feel the haptic Safety Alert Seat.* The whole system is intended to make sure the driver is still engaged in the event they need to take control.
We’ve allotted enough time for you to look away to do most simple tasks in the vehicle, such as changing your climate control settings or adjusting the radio, but we certainly don’t want people on their computers, texting or performing any other distracting activities.
Super Cruise is made possible by precision LiDAR map data, the Driver Attention System, and real-time vehicle cameras, radar sensors and GPS data. The LiDAR map data provides information about the road, such as road curvature, the number of lanes, and the location of entrance and exit ramps. The Driver Attention System ensures the driver is paying attention to the road and communicates system status and alerts to the driver. The real-time cameras detect the left and right lane markings, so the system knows where the vehicle should be centered in the lane.
The cameras and sensors also determine where other vehicles are in relationship to your vehicle, which enables you to maintain a selectable gap distance to the vehicle ahead of you, and enables features such as Lane Change on Demand and Automatic Lane Change. Then, lastly, the precision GPS is what locates your vehicle on the map so the system only functions when driving on a Super Cruise–compatible road.
They are technically two separate features, but they build on top of each other. I’ll start with Lane Change on Demand. When using Super Cruise, the driver can use the turn signal to indicate they want to change lanes. The system will “look” for an opening in the indicated lane, and if it determines there is an opening, it will automatically steer the vehicle to change lanes. Through this whole process, messages in the Driver Information Center let the driver know what the vehicle is doing.
We’ve also expanded the capability to add Automatic Lane Change on compatible vehicles, where the system can determine when a lane change would be optimal and initiate it on its own. For example, the vehicle might change lanes if a vehicle ahead of you is traveling slower than your set speed — it can move out of the lane, pass slower traffic, and then bring you back into your original lane — or to move over from a lane that may be ending.
With the upcoming launch of Super Cruise on our full-sized pickups, we knew that our drivers would want to utilize Super Cruise while trailering — that was an absolute necessity for the full-sized pickups and also for our large SUVs. We developed specific calibrations to account for the additional drag and braking distance that come with towing a trailer and a more center-biased vehicle position in corners.
It’s worth pointing out that when you’re trailering, the trailer blocks the rear radar sensors from determining whether there’s traffic approaching from behind. So if the vehicle detects that it is trailering, Lane Change on Demand and Automatic Lane Change are disabled.
One is that Super Cruise does operate across a wide speed range, from zero to 85 miles per hour. I really love using Super Cruise in stop-and-go traffic, because that tends to be one of the more stressful driving scenarios for me. I think when some people hear Super Cruise they think it’s only meant for higher speeds. But like I said, it’s really a full speed range feature.
Another quick fact is that our drivers have accumulated more than 18 million miles since the initial launch of Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, which is a pretty substantial number of miles given the limited number of vehicles that we currently have out there with Super Cruise.
There are two ways. In order for Super Cruise to function, you are required to have an active Super Cruise plan to provide precision GPS corrections, map updates and software updates to the vehicle. New Super Cruise–equipped vehicles come with a three-year trial of this connectivity.
In addition, the vehicle may contact OnStar Emergency Services* if the driver is nonresponsive to the escalating Driver Attention System alerts. If the driver doesn’t respond to a series of escalating alerts, including the visual and audible alerts, as well as alerts through the Safety Alert Seat, the vehicle will turn on the hazard lights to alert other vehicles and come to a complete stop in its lane. Then, an OnStar Emergency-Certified Advisor* will connect into the vehicle to attempt to communicate with the driver, and direct help to the vehicle’s location, if needed.
In addition to our mission of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion, we’ve had a lot of customer feedback that’s indicated they want Super Cruise to be available on more vehicles. We plan to roll Super Cruise out in a big way. We’re going to make a big splash here in the next couple years, and we’re planning to offer Super Cruise on 22 new vehicles through the calendar year 2023, and that will include vehicles across all of GM’s brands.