Cadillac vows some self-driving tech by 2016, but industry wants legal shield too

Justin Hyde
·Managing Editor

That Cadillac announced Sunday it would build a type of self-driving technology called Super Cruise for a 2017 model-year vehicle isn't in itself that surprising. Several automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Lincoln already have systems that can manage limited hands-free driving on highways, and Nissan has vowed to push for a fully autonomous car by 2020.

What's noteworthy is less what Cadillac and General Motors CEO Mary Barra said, but how: By billing it solely as a convenience feature, avoiding any suggestion that Super Cruise could make a driver safer. That's because behind the scenes, GM other automakers are concerned about the legal problems of self-driving cars and vehicle-to-vehicle tech — so much so that they have asked regulators for some kind of immunity if the industry is required to roll out devices that make decisions for the driver.

Barra said GM would offer Super Cruse on an unnamed Cadillac in 2016, likely the brand's new flagship expect to be revealed next year. She also said that the 2017 Cadillac CTS will offer a form of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, a system that lets cars exchange data to speed up traffic or warn of potential collisions, much in the way modern passenger planes do today.

"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 in a speech. "And if the mood strikes you on the high-speed road from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas, you can take a break from the wheel and pedals and let the car do the work."

Yet GM says the system would "increase the comfort of an attentive driver on freeways," and Barra also said Super Cruise "will keep drivers alert and engaged." That's an odd bit of phrasing — like saying your dishwasher will make you pay more attention to washing dishes — and one far less ambitious than claims from Google and other non-automakers pushing for fully autonomous vehicles that would let even blind drivers behind the wheel.

What GM and other automakers have already begun to grapple with is the potential for self-driving tech to make drivers pay even less attention than they do already. After years of fighting distracted driving with sloganeering about hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, automakers now find themselves pressured to design and sell systems that tout the ability to do just the opposite. Last month, a German magazine demonstrated how easy it was to set the Super Cruise-like system on an Infiniti Q50S and climb into the back seat while the car was on the freeway. A couple of automakers have added sensors so their cruise system shuts off if it doesn't detect a driver's hand on the wheel for a short period — but that also begs the question of what the tech's for in the first place.

And as the U.S. government begins writing the rules that will govern vehicle-to-vehicle technologies, automakers have warned that such tech would be slowed greatly if the industry wasn't given some kind of legal shield from customer lawsuits. A report from the world's nine largest automakers in 2012 noted that other industries had similar protections for offering better safety technology, such as cellphone carriers who offered expanded 911 service. (Among the other examples: swine flu vaccines, aeronautical mapmakers and nuclear power plants.)

Given how slowly regulators move, it's likely that automakers will have many more Super Cruise-like systems on the road before lawmakers catch up, and that eager lawyers will test automakers' defenses of only helping attentive drivers in court. With so many directions to turn, someone will have to grab the wheel.