The story of Super Cruise goes back at least to 2012, when Cadillac division announced it would bring to market autonomous features not yet available anywhere else — even from Volvo or Mercedes-Benz. Rumors at the time said that it would first appear in the ill-fated, Voltec-powered ELR extended-range electric coupe. Later, GM promised the feature by 2017.
Well, 2017 is here and GM finally will launch Super Cruise in a few months as an option on the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan. In the five-odd years since Cadillac’s announcement, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has discovered the technology and has added it to the Tesla Model S and Model X, Volvo has begun its DriveMe test along 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) of Gothenburg, Sweden’s highways, and Ford Motor Company’s CEO, Mark Fields, has promised Level IV geo-fenced autonomy featuring cars without steering wheels or pedals by 2021.
And that’s just a selection of the automakers involved.
While it may appear that GM is lagging behind the competition, the automaker’s autonomous experiments go beyond Super Cruise. For example, GM took a big step last December when CEO Mary Barra announced that experimental Chevrolet Bolt autonomous cars will have their special equipment — Lidar, radar, cameras and the like — added along with radios and air conditioning along the EV hatchback’s assembly line.
When I spoke with Super Cruise chief engineer Barry Walkup last month at the 2017 New York International Auto Show, his quiet, understated description of the technology served as a contrast to the bold proclamations from the likes of Musk and Fields.
“I find it very comfortable,” he tells me. “You can put your hands down when you want. I drove it to Cleveland [from Metro Detroit] the other day. I felt like I wasn’t fatigued.”
Walkup rates Super Cruise at “Level II” autonomy on the five-level SAE scale. While it lacks the lane-changing feature of Level III, Super Cruise is clearly competitive with Tesla’s AutoPilot and, apparently, more thoroughly tested. What makes SuperCruise different and, in my opinion, safer, is that it wasn’t rushed to market. Having dealt with federal agencies and safety advocates for more than half a century, Cadillac wasn’t in the mood for bringing Level II autonomy to market before it was ready.
“First and foremost, it had to be safe,” Walkup says. “Second, we wanted it to be hands-free. There’s no value on a hands-on system, because we already had that with lane-keep assist.”
Cadillac deployed trucks with Lidar to map “every mile of limited-access highway in the U.S. and Canada,” which is where Super Cruise is designed to work. It seems like an undertaking similar in concept to Google’s much larger, more complete mapping system. Or, perhaps it’s something like Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train system, where every kilometer of track is inspected daily.
“This is the first application of the Lidar-based system,” Walkup says. “We have five-centimeter accuracy, so we know all the lane lines, we know all the roads on the Interstate system. We made that into a 3-D model, we made that into a map that’s in the car. What that allows us to do is see farther down the road than the radar or the camera.
“Say you’re approaching a tollbooth. We can annotate that on the map, and hand back control to you long before you get to the tollbooth. So that’s an additional safety feature that’s on top of the camera and radar – we have a failed operation condition. We can continue on, based on the last-known image of the map, until you can regain control of the vehicle. Some other systems, the camera just fails and it can just wander around. We’ll actually hold the lane until you gain control of the vehicle.”
One of Super Cruise’s industry firsts, Walkup says, is a motion-tracking infrared camera that focuses on the driver to make sure he or she is awake and paying attention as the Cadillac drives itself down the Interstate. If the driver nods off, or his or her attention wanders, alerts escalate and get increasingly more intense.
“You start with the flashing light bar [on the steering wheel] and the chime. Then you get an audible cue, or a voice that says, ‘please take control,’ over the audio system. If you don’t regain control, then the car will start to disengage and coast, and then it’ll start to slowly brake in its lane, then it will turn on its flashers and call OnStar.”
GM hasn’t solved the problem of autonomous operation in the snow, or on roads with lane lines obliterated by any sort of bad weather. If you enter a highway during a blizzard, Super Cruise will refuse to activate. Drive into a blizzard and it directs control back to the driver, Walkup says. Same for, say, road salt buildup on the front camera lens.
Cadillac will offer Super Cruise as a $2,500 option on them Luxury and Platinum trims, which come standard with forward collision alert, low-speed automatic braking, following distance indicator, the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V-6, and all-wheel-drive.
What’s next? Super Cruise will expand throughout the Cadillac lineup as new and updated models roll out while Walkup and his crew continuously work to ramp capabilities up to Level III and beyond. With autonomous capabilities rapidly expanding throughout the industry (and getting less expensive), however, it seems clear that the Level IV and V capabilities being tested in Chevy Bolts will meet Super Cruise in the middle, before it has the chance to trickle down into Buicks and GMCs.