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GM will introduce hands-free, foot-free driving in 2017 Cadillac

Drivers will be able to switch a new Cadillac model to partial auto-pilot, says GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors plans to start selling cars that can drive partially in an auto-pilot mode and that can exchange speed and safety data with similarly equipped vehicles.

The first features are expected to show up in high-end Cadillac vehicles for the 2017 model year -- in about two years -- but over time will move down market into GM’s other brands.

“Everyone recognizes that when cars can talk to each other and share information about speed, direction, operating performance and more, we'll save lives, save time and save money as well,” said Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, in a speech to the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit on Sunday.

Barra talked about two initiatives the automaker has launched to commercialize “intelligent” car technology.

GM is to offer what it is calling “Super Cruise” in a new Cadillac model that Barra didn’t name.

The system will allow drivers to switch the vehicle into a semi-automated mode in which it will automatically keep the car in its lane, making necessary steering adjustments, and autonomously trigger braking and speed control to maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.

“With Super Cruise, when there's a congestion alert on roads like California's Santa Monica Freeway, you can let the car take over and drive hands-free and feet-free through the worst stop-and-go traffic around,” Barra said. “And if the mood strikes you on the high-speed road from Barstow, California to Las Vegas, you can take a break from the wheel and pedals and let the car do the work.”

Other automakers including Mercedes-Benz, Acura and Subaru have started to put self-piloting functions in vehicles already on the U.S. market. They use technology similar to what will go into the Cadillac model but aren’t as expansive.

Both the Mercedes and Acura vehicles, for example, will automatically keep a car in a lane for a short period of time but will warn the driver to take control of the steering wheel after five to 10 seconds. The vehicles also have sensors that allow their cruise control systems to slow down and then speed up to adjust to traffic conditions and maintain a safe distance behind a car in front.

GM’s rivals also are working to develop their own partial auto-pilot systems

Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA, has said that by the end of 2016, Nissan will start to market cars that can take over some driving functions, including a “traffic-jam pilot” that enables the vehicle to safely drive autonomously on congested highways. The Japanese automaker also plans to introduce cars that can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes by 2018.

However, “GM is pushing the boundaries here,” said Thilo Koslowski, auto analyst at Gartner Inc. “This is how the evolution to fully autonomous vehicles will occur.”

GM and other automakers will have to see how consumers take to these automated driving functions, Koslowski said, and there will be other questions, such as how insurance companies will deal with these cars. Some functions, such as systems that alert drivers to potential collisions and trigger the brakes, are already proving to reduce crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

GM’s Super Cruise system and its plan to start selling cars that can trade information with other vehicles is a reminder that the auto industry is not willing to give up control of these innovations to Google and other technology companies, Koslowski said.

“The next big challenge on the road to fully automated driving is to tackle the urban environment, where you have to dodge everything from jaywalkers and bike messengers to double-parked delivery trucks,” Barra said.

The GM CEO estimated that commercializing a fully automated vehicle may take until the next decade, but that the work that’s going on now in the auto industry is creating the building blocks for robotic cars.

Earlier this year, Google said it plans to test about 200 gumdrop-shaped, two-seat, self-driving cars. The testing program is to start later this year with a handful of early prototypes hitting the roads around the tech giant’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

These first cars will have manual controls for the test drivers to override the cars' autonomous driving systems, as required by current California law. But Google plans to build the bulk of the cars as fully autonomous -- no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedal.

Automakers, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Nissan also are testing full self-driving vehicles and autopilot technology.

By 2025, as many as 230,000 self-driving vehicles could be sold each year globally, and that number could swell to 11.8 million a decade later, according to a study released this year by IHS Automotive.

Barra also announced that the 2017 model year Cadillac CTS will come equipped with so called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology.

When enough autos on the highways have V2V communication, the technology is expected to reduce collisions and improve traffic congestion. Cars will send and receive basic safety information such as location, speed and direction of travel between vehicles that are approaching each other. The data exchange will warn drivers and trigger safety features, such as forward collision warning systems.

The first Cadillacs sold with V2V communication capability “will be very lonely cars in terms of finding another car to talk to,” Koslowski said. But he said GM was taking a “bold move” to tackle the chicken-or-egg question.

“They are doing this without any type of government mandate,” Koslowski said. “They are saying it is time to move the technology forward and this will motivate other manufacturers to follow suit.”

Although it will take years to get enough vehicles on the road for such a system to pay benefits, "it is a positive step," said Jeremy Carlson, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "We need this type of buy-in from the industry.”

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