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Self-driving tech is coming. In fact, I’ll tell you it’s already here.

Maybe it’s not the full-on, Level-5, leave-your-steering-wheel-at-home technology people think of when they hear the word “autonomous.” But the stuff that keeps you in your lane and applies automatic brakes so you don’t hit the post you’re about to back into?

That stuff his available right now in $20k vehicles.

The hands-free stuff? That’s here, too – even if it’s not considered fully autonomous. And you’ll probably see it on your favorite pickup truck sooner than you think.

Levels of autonomy

OK, let’s back up a minute and talk about what “autonomous” and “self driving” actually mean. There are five levels of autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and while the Teslarati may think their vehicles are at Level 5, they aren’t. In fact, the highest level we’ve achieved in a consumer vehicle is Level 2 – and that includes anything from Tesla.

So, what are these levels exactly?

  • Level 1: Driver Assistance. The vehicle is controlled by the driver, but some driving-assist features may be included in the vehicle design. Think lane keep assist or automatic emergency braking.
  • Level 2: Partial Automation. The vehicle has combined automated functions like acceleration and steering, but the driver must remain engaged with the driving task and monitor the environment at all times. This would include adaptive cruise control and hands-free park assist features as well as Tesla’s Autopilot.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation. The driver is a necessity but is not required to monitor the environment. The Driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times with notice. This is where you start to see some of the experimental vehicles – like those from Waymo – in controlled test environments.
  • Level 4: High Automation. The vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions. The driver may have the option to control the vehicle. If this exists, it is still highly experimental on a closed course in an early-stage test situation.
  • Level 5: Full Automation. The vehicle is capable of performing all the driving functions under all conditions. The driver may have the option to control the vehicle. If Level 4 isn’t available, don’t even think about Level 5.

Chart showing what the levels of autonomy really mean in understandable language. (Image courtesy of Society of Automotive Engineers)

What self-driving tech is on the market right now?

Last week we heard a rant from our editor, Tim Esterdahl, about self-driving tech as it pertains to semi trucks, and he was primarily speaking about Level 4 and 5 automations. Since we aren’t there yet (by a long shot), he still has some time to chase people off his lawn and grumble about something that’s unavoidable.

But partial automation? That’s absolutely a thing – including the hands-free kind. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know about Telsa’s Autopilot, but did you know General Motors has a really good system in place, too? And Ford Motor Co. has its system launching with the 2021 F-150.

But what about Ram, Toyota, Nissan and Honda? Do their full-size trucks have hands-free tech, too? In a word: Nope. They have self-driving tech such as adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, but nothing that encourages you to take your hands off the wheel and drink a cup of coffee.

So, let’s take a closer look at Ford and GM systems, what they do and what vehicles they’re available in.

self-driving tech

The all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade is the first full-size SUV to feature Super Cruise. (Image courtesy of General Motors)

GM’s Super Cruise

Super Cruise has been out for a few years, and I first had the chance to test it on the now-defunct Cadillac CT6 sedan. It can only be activated on compatible highways (not your neighborhood side streets), and though it is a hands-free system, it does require you to keep your eyes on the road. In fact, there’s a camera monitoring your head, and if it looks like you aren’t paying attention (like maybe you’re sending a text message), it’ll issue an audible and visual alert before shutting down.

The system itself uses lane-centering technology as well as adaptive cruise control not only to keep you in your lane but also to maintain a safe distance between you and the vehicles around you. There are a series of connective services (subscription fee), cameras, LiDAR map data and sensors in play that detect curves, lane lines and other vehicles.

I tested the system in a drive from Chicago to Milwaukee and back and found it worked really well – even if I kept my hands perched over the steering wheel for the first hour. The system I had did not have hands-free lane-change function, but the next-gen Super Cruise will.

We know Super Cruise will be in the 2021 Escalade as well as some upcoming Cadillac sedans, but we recently learned it will be rolling out to other GM products as well. We have confirmed it will appear in the 2022 GMC Hummer EV, and we’ve heard rumors it’ll also be included in the 2022 GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado.

A pre-production screen showing the human-machine interface of Active Drive Assist, a new Ford Co-Pilot360 Technology that allows for hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in all 50 states and Canada. (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

Ford’s Active Drive Assist

Ford Motor Co. has been playing around with hands-free self-driving tech for a while now – but only while parking. The Enhanced Active Park Assist takes over steering wheel control in parallel parking situations to ensure you don’t hit the cars around you – or even the curb!

Living in city, this feature can be invaluable – especially if you’re parallel parking on a one-way street on the left side. This park assist feature will also get you out of the space as well, which is super helpful if people park after you and block you in.

In a next step, Ford has debuted Active Drive Assist on the upcoming 2021 Mach-E and F-150. Similar to Super Cruise, it will only be available on compatible highways, and it also uses sensors, camaras and radar to keep you in your lane and away from other drivers. It will also have a driver facing camera to ensure you’re keeping your eyes on the road.

Active Drive Assist will be a part of the more up-level versions of Co-Pilot 360 and, thus, will be standard on more expensive trims but available as an add-on feature at lower trims.

The bottom line on self-driving tech

Unlike Tim, I see the point of autonomous driving: fewer traffic jams, less driver fatigue and potentially zero crashes (therefore, zero fatalities). It’s definitely a brave new weird world that disconcerting to say the least.

While we still have some glitches and infrastructure issues to work through before Levels 4 and 5 are a reality, we can certainly enjoy some levels of autonomy today.

The best thing about it, though (and I think Tim and I will both agree on this), is you can turn it off and just drive.

Related posts:

The absurdity of self-driving trucks and the cost to consumers

2021 Ford F-150: 5 Most important things to know

2021 Cadillac Escalade Gains Super Cruise According To New Report, Costs $2500

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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