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Magic Cars

Come along as we drive hands-free across the country



The author “drove” the new self-driving Cadillac CT6 for 650 miles.

Photo by Scott Downing

As a car guy, I dread the thought of traveling around in an autonomous, anonymous, steering-wheel-free people-pod. But when Cadillac invited me to participate in the first two legs of a cross-country drive to launch its new Super Cruise technology “the first true hands-free system for the highway,” I was intrigued. 

Semi-autonomous driving technology is not new. Numerous automakers offer variations on active lane assist, auto braking, and adaptive cruise control. Tesla has grabbed the most headlines, both good and bad, for its Autopilot system. Cadillac’s system, initially only available on the CT6 luxury sedan, differs from Tesla’s in a few key ways. First, Super Cruise can only be used on limited access highways of which Cadillac used LIDAR to create highly-detailed maps of over 130,000 miles of roadway in the US alone. This mapping data is stored in the car and uses over-the-air updates to keep it current. Tesla’s system on the other hand does not use LIDAR, but can be used anywhere the system can read the road.

Secondly, Super Cruise is designed for use by a driver who is alert and looking down the road. It’s hands-free, not eyes-free. Cadillac’s Driver Attention System employs infra-red emitters and a camera above the steering column that constantly scans the driver’s face, making sure he is looking forward. The system is really well-engineered, even working with my dark sunglasses. The driver can look away for brief periods, but after about five seconds, the green lights on the top of the steering wheel will begin to flash—Pay attention! If the driver does not respond, the alerts escalate. Eventually, the car will assume the driver is incapacitated and will bring the vehicle to a safe, complete stop, put on the flashers, and call OnStar for help. During my drive, I purposely got to the third level where a stern voice told me take control of the vehicle. 

Lastly, unlike Autopilot, Super Cruise will not change lanes for you. If you want to make a move, you simply put on your turn 

signal, which pauses the system. Change lanes and once you are centered in the new lane, Super Cruise will re-engage. As a side benefit, it might force more people to use turn signals.

So, how does it work? Overall, wonderfully. Getting the system engaged is relatively easy. When you see the little gray icon illuminate on the dash, push a button on the steering wheel and Super Cruise is locked in. If you are too far to one side of the lane, it won’t come up. Or if you are in a mapped construction zone, or approaching a toll booth, no dice. But those instances were few. When Super Cruise is engaged, green lights on top of the steering wheel illuminate. Take your hands off the wheel and off you go. The first time you approach a turn can be a bit unnerving, but the car tracks dead center in the lane like it’s a slot car on a track. It does this through a fusion of technologies including a forward mounted camera, onboard high-resolution map, and GPS with real-time corrections to determine what lane the vehicle is in. 

The other key part of the system is Cadillac’s adaptive cruise control, which allows the driver to adjust the gap to the car in front. The braking and accelerating is smooth and actually better than most human drivers. During my two-day drive, from Cadillac’s headquarters in Manhattan to Washington, DC, and from DC to Cleveland, I encountered a wide variety of conditions and roads.

At one point in New Jersey, a driver cut in front of me. I was poised to stab the brake pedal, but the CT6 beat me to it—firmly and smoothly slowing the car without drama. New Jersey and Maryland offered a few sections of stop-and-go traffic, which really allowed Super Cruise to shine. The car would come to a complete stop until the car in front began moving again. BMW has a similar system except it kicks off after being stopped for a few seconds. With Super Cruise, you can be at a dead stop for up to three minutes with the system still engaged. Nice. 

I drove 650 miles over the two days, most of that time in Super Cruise mode. At the end of each day, I felt more relaxed than after any other trip of similar length. The system relieves the stress, boredom, and anxiety of long drives or commuting in heavy traffic. Best of all, with the relaxed driving environment, I could engage in great conversation with my passengers. The CT6 is the perfect platform to launch this technology, too. It’s exceptionally comfortable, well-equipped, and has plenty of performance. You would be hard pressed to find a better car for a long road trip.

Technology is best when it improves your quality of life. Super Cruise does just that. Personally, this experience has completely changed my perspective on semi-autonomy. I still want to drive, but for long highway trips or bumper-to-bumper slogs, I would absolutely use Super Cruise.

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