I’ve always had a problem driving in the back seat. As a kid, you could…
Local engineer’s expertise helps guide GM’s SuperCruise project
I’m sitting in a souped-up Cadillac SRX, driving at 60 miles per hour around a curving highway with my feet flat on the floor and not on the gas pedal.
I’m used to this, having had cruise control in my car for many years. But now my hands are planted on my knees and not on the steering wheel. This is something new. The car stays in its lane and approaches another car going 50 mph. The SRX slows to 50. When the other car pulls over, my car accelerates back up to 60.
You won’t be able to try this at home, at least not for several more years. The SRX is a General Motors test vehicle, and I am driving it on the circular test track at the GM Proving Grounds in Milford.
With me is Jeremy Salinger of Southfield, an engineer and lab group manager at GM, who is one of the lead innovators of SuperCruise, GM’s name for the semi-automated driving technology it hopes to have on the market by 2020.
All the driver has to do is guide the car into a lane, accelerate to the desired speed and hit the self drive button. The car takes it from there, staying in the lane and braking if traffic slows down or if another car cuts in.
SuperCruise works on highways, not surface streets, as long as the lane markings are visible. It will work at any speed, even in stop-and-go traffic.
Other auto manufacturers are working on similar automated driving systems. Everyone has access to the same sensors, radars and GPS systems, Salinger said. But he believes GM has the edge.
On The Leading Edge
Others agree. Last October, Popular Mechanics magazine named GM one of 10 winners of its annual Breakthrough Awards for innovators who changed the world. The winners were featured in the November issue of the magazine. Salinger and several others on the GM team went to New York for an awards presentation at the Hearst Tower.
“Right now it appears GM is likely to be the first to market with a real-world vehicle,” said Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief Jim Meigs in an interview with the Business Insider blog. “SuperCruise doesn’t claim to offer fully autonomous operation, and the fact is our legal and physical infrastructures aren’t ready for that anyway.”
With SuperCruise, the driver still needs to pay attention — no taking a nap or texting while the car is in SuperCruise mode. GM is still working on the “secret sauce” in the system that will detect if the driver falls asleep or becomes distracted, Salinger said.
Still, SuperCruise will make driving more enjoyable. “You’ll be able to relax a little more than you would otherwise,” he said.
“Theoretically, you’ll be able to get on I-75 in Michigan, put your car into a lane you like and let SuperCruise drive you all the way to Florida,” Salinger said.
He says “theoretically” because in reality no one lane goes all that way.
Not to mention that no one can drive from Michigan to Florida without stopping to rest or answer a call of nature. If the driver wants to change lanes, to pass a slower car for example, he or she has to take control, and if the car leaves the freeway, even for an exit ramp, the system turns off.
The idea of a self-driving car is nothing new. In 1939, the “Futurama” exhibit at the New York World’s Fair (sponsored by GM) featured cars that could drive themselves. The cars were powered by electric circuits embedded in the roadway and were controlled by radio signals.
Standard cruise control appeared in the 1960s. It took many years for the next big advance in automated driving. “Adaptive cruise control” includes a radar that detects obstacles in front of the car and slows the vehicle automatically, but it disengages at speeds below 25 mph. Mitsubishi introduced it in Japan in 1995; GM first offered it on the Cadillac XLR in 2004.
“Full-speed, range-adaptive cruise control,” available in Cadillacs since 2013, works at all speeds.
With six radars, two cameras and ultrasonic sensors, today’s Cadillac has other options that feed into SuperCruise, like rear parking assist, which not only beeps when it detects an obstacle behind a car that’s backing up, it also stops the car if the driver doesn’t.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Agency has established five levels of car-controlled driving:
Level 0: The driver completely controls the vehicle at all times.
Level 1: Individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking.
Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.
Level 3: The driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a “sufficiently comfortable transition time” for the driver to do so.
Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. As this vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including all parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.
Until now, no auto manufacturer has combined speed control with steering control.
GM took a great leap forward in 2007 when, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it won the DARPA Urban Challenge, an automatic driving competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Dozens of driverless cars entered the competition but only 11 made it to the finals. They competed on a 55-mile course built at a former military base to simulate an urban environment. Competitors had to pass various checkpoints, park, avoid obstacles and obey all traffic laws.
Only six vehicles completed the course in the requisite six hours — and the winner was the GM-Carnegie Mellon team’s vehicle, a heavily modified Chevy Tahoe nicknamed “The Boss.”
“The Boss” was not commercially viable, but it proved that driverless cars are technologically feasible, Salinger said.
Salinger graduated from Southfield High School and Oakland University, earned a master’s in electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering systems from the University of Michigan.
He’s a lifelong member and former trustee of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park. He attended Habonim Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Mich., as a child and later served on its board of directors. He is active with the Zionist organization Ameinu, serving as local chapter president and a member of the national board.
He began working on adaptive cruise control about 10 years ago when he worked for a GM contractor, ERIM, in Ann Arbor. At GM, where he’s worked for seven years, he has been part of the SuperCruise team since its inception.
In January, Salinger began an eight-month exchange assignment with GM in Israel. He’s managing one of the lab groups in Israel with a goal of maximizing the group’s contribution to innovation at GM. GM has approximately 60 staff in Israel.
At the same time, Ran Gazit, a GM engineer from Israel, came to Michigan.
He is living in Bloomfield Hills until his assignment ends in August.
Salinger’s wife, Vicki, was unable to join him in Israel for the entire eight months because of obligations to grandchildren and their black lab, Darwin. So Salinger worked out an arrangement that lets him return to Detroit periodically for a few weeks each time. He was here most recently for Passover.
What’s next on the road to automatic driving?
While SuperCruise is a huge advance, the system needs good road conditions to operate. GM will continue to work on cars that can operate on more challenging surfaces and on city streets as well as on highways.
Insurance and legal issues also need to be addressed before fully automatic cars become a reality.
“There’s a lot more to do,” Salinger said. ■
Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer