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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Starting in 2023, owners of some premium General Motors vehicles will be able to push a button and navigate hands-free in 95% of driving situations — including highways, subdivisions and city streets.

Why it matters: Ultra Cruise — the next-generation assisted-driving technology that GM introduced Wednesday — is a giant step forward in the automaker's goal of "zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion."

  • GM says it will ultimately enable "door-to-door" hands-free driving on virtually any paved road in the U.S. and Canada.

The catch: Then as now, drivers will always have to pay attention — even when the car is doing the driving — in case they need to take back control.

The big picture: Tesla has long promised door-to-door, hands-free trips with its AutoPilot technology and is currently rolling out a beta version of its so-called "full self-driving" (or FSD) system.

  • But the vision so far does not match reality. Tesla drivers must continually touch the steering wheel to register attentiveness, and unlike GM, there is no driver-monitoring system to track your gaze while you rest your hands in your lap.

What's happening: GM says Ultra Cruise will co-exist with its current driver-assistance system, Super Cruise, to make the technology accessible to customers at all price levels.

  • The more advanced Ultra Cruise will be reserved for premium vehicles like Cadillac, while Super Cruise — limited to hands-free highway driving — will be available on more mainstream vehicles like Chevrolet.
  • When Ultra Cruise launches in 2023, it will cover more than 2 million miles of roads in the U.S. and Canada — 10 times as many as today's Super Cruise. Eventually, it will cover 3.4 million miles.

How it works: Ultra Cruise, which GM developed in-house, works through a combination of cameras, radars and LiDAR, providing a 360-degree, three-dimensional view of the vehicle's surrounding environment.

  • The system can continually add features, functions and services via over-the-air software updates.

Ultra Cruise goes beyond Super Cruise with new automated driving features that can follow navigation routes.

  • Plug in your office commute, for example, and the car can automatically navigate from the end of your driveway to your employer's parking garage.
  • That means it can handle stop signs, traffic lights, left- and right-hand turns, highway merges and exits — 95% of driving scenarios, GM says.
  • As long as the driver stays engaged, it can even handle a cross-country road trip.

What it can't handle: Pop-up construction or confusing roundabouts, for example, aren't in the repertoire.

  • In those cases, the car will trigger a "non-urgent escalation" — that is, a light on the steering wheel will alert the driver to take control momentarily, and then the system will re-engage, according to Jason Ditman, chief engineer of Ultra Cruise.
  • Touch sensors in the steering wheel will notify the car that the driver has regained control. If the driver doesn't respond, the car will issue a more urgent alert — the light bar will flash red — and eventually safely come to a stop if necessary.

What to watch: GM isn't saying which vehicles will get Ultra Cruise, but it's safe to expect Cadillac models will be first.

  • Nor is the company saying how much it will cost, but it seems likely to be offered as a monthly subscription.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Oct 7, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Electric takeaways from General Motors' new business plan

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

General Motors is offering detailed revenue goals for its electric vehicle business and new info about plans for new models.

Driving the news: Here are the juicy bits of their investor presentation and announcements Wednesday.

  • GM's gunning for "leadership in EV market share" — a shot across Tesla's bow — with a broad portfolio of high-volume EVs.

Biden rejects Trump's latest executive privilege claims

Photo: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The White House on Monday rejected two more of former President Trump's claims of executive privilege over documents that the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot requested, CNN first reported.

Why it matters: Trump's legal team is seeking to block some of the panel's requests for records by invoking executive privilege, which can allow presidents and their aides to sidestep congressional scrutiny. The Biden administration has maintained that it will evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

Amazon warehouse workers in New York file petition to hold unionization vote

Amazon workers and their supporters rally outside the National Labor Relations Board's regional office in Brooklyn, New York City, after filing a petition requesting an election to form a union. Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amazon warehouse workers in New York City filed a petition on Monday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a vote on unionization.

Why it matters: The move comes six months after an organizing effort was defeated at Amazon's distribution center in Alabama.