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Last year, General Motors filed a trademark for something called “Ultra Cruise.” The company has never explained what Ultra Cruise is, but it would seem to be a reference to the auto giant’s well-regarded advanced driver assist system, Super Cruise. Today, we got some more details courtesy of GM CEO Mary Barra — but not enough to see the whole picture.
In an earnings call Thursday, Citi Research’s Itay Michaeli asked Barra about Super Cruise, and then a follow-up about how GM “might go to market with the next-generation Ultra Cruise system?”
Barra’s response suggested the new technology would have even more capability than Super Cruise. Or she could be conflating Ultra Cruise with Super Cruise? Honestly, it’s hard to say.
Here’s what she said: “As you mentioned with Ultra Cruise, this is a technology you saw us continue to improve it with the number of places you can use it. We’re going to continue to add capability. And we’re very excited about it and the road map that we have. So we’ll be rolling it out as quickly as we can, with again having a strong focus on safety.”
At first glance, it sounds like Barra is suggesting that Ultra Cruise will be a beefier version of Super Cruise, the highly automated system developed by Cadillac that is really about as close to autonomous driving as anyone can get in a production vehicle today. In what way, though, it’s hard to say. It’s really one of those CEO quotes that have a lot of words, but not a lot of meaning behind them.
When it first debuted in 2017, Super Cruise drew immediate comparisons to Tesla’s Autopilot system. It uses cameras, radar, and LIDAR-acquired mapping data, combined with a robust driver monitoring system, to take a lot of stress out of highway driving. When engaged, drivers can take their feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel, and the car does the rest. This is hands-free driving in the truest sense.
But that doesn’t mean drivers can read their phone or climb in the backseat and take a nap: a driver-facing camera mounted on the steering column monitors drivers’ eye movements to ensure their attention stays on the road.
The main problem with Super Cruise, so far, has been scarcity. Since its debut two years ago, Super Cruise has only been in one vehicle: the CT6 sedan. But that changed recently, when Cadillac unveiled its second vehicle with Super Cruise, the 2020 CT5 sedan. Starting in 2020, the automaker plans to roll out a new model with Super Cruise every six months, going through the end of 2021. That means four new models with Super Cruise in two years.
Earlier this year, GM engineers told The Verge that Super Cruise was undergoing a major upgrade. During the earnings call, Barra offered some more details: an additional 70,000 miles of compatible divided highway, and 200,000 miles of highway by the end of the year.
“More than 85 percent of current CT6 owners said that for future vehicle consideration, they would prefer or only consider a vehicle equipped with Super Cruise,” Barra said.
But what about Ultra Cruise? Is it something in between Super Cruise and Cruise Automation, the self-driving subsidiary of GM? We reached out to a GM spokesperson, but they wouldn’t say.
“As you know, we’ve made a number of enhancements to Super Cruise and will continue to do so over time to make Super Cruise the most beneficial system for our customers,” the spokesperson said. “We are always exploring new technologies and the benefits those technologies can bring to our customers, but we have nothing to announce as far as future product goes at this time.”
Time will tell whether Ultra Cruise is something worth considering. In the meantime, the company is still dealing with the fallout from its decision to delay the launch of its driverless taxi service. The autonomous driving division, which lost $280 million last quarter, has yet to say when it will reschedule the debut of its ride-hailing project.
“I’m not going to put a specific time out there,” Barra said. “I just would say we have line of sight.”