DETROIT – New active safety systems, available this fall on Cadillac models and capable of automatically stopping a vehicle to avoid a crash, mark the first step toward autonomous driving, General Motors engineers say.

“If we can get this right, it gets us on our way to autonomy,” says Charles Green, an engineer and research scientist responsible for development of the GM Driver Awareness and Driver Assist packages.

The packages are available now on Cadillac’s ’13 XTS, ATS and SRX performance- and premium-trim models.

Driver Awareness includes alerts and warnings to prevent forward collisions, unintended lane departures and incursions by other vehicles into side- and rear-blind zones and costs about $900.

The more sophisticated Driver Assist adds adaptive cruise control, collision preparation and automatic front- and rear-braking systems and costs about $3,200.

Exact pricing depends on the model.

Technologies such as forward-collision warning and lane-keeping have been available in mainstream vehicles for several years now, even appearing on some of the more-affordable, high-volume models. But items such as collision preparation and automatic braking are just now hitting the market, underscoring the safety potential of autonomous vehicles.

GM earlier this summer held a demonstration of its current autonomous-driving technology at the auto maker’s Milford, MI, proving ground. A Cadillac SRX, using the new safety packages as the basis for the capability, sped journalists around a test track automatically.

But Green admits allowing the vehicle to take over for a driver is no easy nut to crack. He has spent more than eight years studying the interaction between humans and their vehicles and says the risk of abuse and even aversion to the technology still exists.

“We are concerned about misuse,” he tells WardsAuto during an interview at GM’s world headquarters here, to update the auto maker’s work in the field.

The fear is that active safety systems, such as those that help alert the driver to a possible crash, could encourage distracted driving. Consumers also tend to be reluctant to adopt new technologies, especially those foreign to their normal driving experience.

Green thinks GM has the solution. For starters, its new active safety systems establish an important initial “cooperative link” between the driver and the vehicle. “It’s just ‘kinda’ automated,” he says, perfect for breaking the ice of automated driving.

In the case of automatic braking, which the GM systems utilize to prevent forward and rear collisions at speeds up to about 20 mph (32 km/h) by activating the parking brake, the system intervenes so late few people would risk misuse. It also discourages drivers from testing its limits because it intervenes so sharply.

“We have a good idea of how people react,” Green says, noting the auto maker has performed hundreds of hours of participation studies with live subjects, and most never were made aware of what GM was studying.

Much of the research was conducted with the Virginia Tech (University) Transportation Institute, which has performed some of the world’s most extensive driver-behavior studies.

Green says the last-second nature of the automatic-braking system, which reacts only after the driver fails to respond to pulses in his seat, also leads people to believe they performed the maneuver themselves. The parking brake automatically releases when the driver steps on the accelerator, contributing to the seamlessness of the system.

“Our research shows they were so close behind the automatic braking, they think they saved themselves,” Green says.

In addition to preventing low-speed crashes altogether, GM’s automatic braking also works at high speeds to reduce the severity of a crash.

Others, such as Volvo, Infiniti and Subaru, are bringing similar active safety systems to market. Green expects the technology will not be exclusive to luxury brands for long because the radars and vision- and ultrasonic-sensors it uses are not exorbitantly expensive.

“The parts that go into this are not magical,” he says. “Like any new technology, as the volumes go up the costs will go down, and suppliers will continue to innovate ways to make it less expensive.”

That makes the day when cars drive themselves all that much closer, Green says.

jamend@wardsauto.com