MILFORD, Michigan – Audi has a suite of self-driving features ready to go on its 2019 A8, although it remains unclear whether either North America or the European Union will allow it on the roads quite yet. Tesla’s Autopilot came quickly with a number of advancements a couple of years ago, though some features, including hands-free driving were removed by software update after some YouTube videos showed owners “driving” from the front passenger seat.
Because Tesla brought those features to market without the kind of belt-and-suspenders safety regimen that every mainstream, traditional automaker has been practicing for about half a century, Cadillac is ready to take the lead on self-driving car development. The General Motors luxury brand’s new Super Cruise is set to become the most advanced semi-autonomous technology on U.S. and Canadian roads if none of the above changes.
Super Cruise becomes standard on the 2018 Cadillac CT6 Platinum, and optional as part of a safety package that builds on such features as intelligent cruise control, on the CT6 Platinum Luxury, this fall. Cadillac says start-of-production of the ’18 CT6 is about one month away, so figure Tesla, Mercedes, Volvo et. al. (the ’19 Audi A8 can’t be a model year-’19 until January) have until the end of September before the first examples are on dealer showrooms.
Super Cruise will let Cadillac CT6 drivers pilot their new cars hands-off so long as conditions are right and the system can find the middle of the car’s lane, on about 160,000 miles of limited-access highway in the U.S. and Canada, mapped by GM and its high-definition mapping partner, Geo Digital. The system consists of front cameras, a map database in back, and a high-precision GPS developed with GM partner Trimble, which can pinpoint the car’s location to within two meters. Conventional GPSes are no more accurate than four meters, GM says.
“The driver is always in control,” chief engineer Barry Walkup says, which is unlike Volvo, whose Drive Me test program lets XC90 drivers read, eat breakfast or even nap. Volvo remains the only automaker to claim responsibility for any of its vehicles involved in an accident while operated by its autonomous systems, but the Drive Me test program is being conducted with 100 Volvo XC90s on just 50 kilometers (31 miles) of limited-access highway in Gothenburg, Sweden, which, I am told, doesn’t get much snow.
Super Cruise is easy to operate, if you’re familiar with ICC and lane-keep assist, or any of a number of variants of such technology from the past half-decade. Enter a freeway, center in your lane and wait for the Super Cruise steering wheel icon to appear on the dash. When the icon appears, press the system’s button on the steering wheel and the dash icon (which frankly, takes your eyes off the road to find it) goes green. You won’t miss the green LED along the top of the steering wheel rim, which also confirms Super Cruise mode. You may take your hands off the wheel for as long as the system is “green,” and at speeds up to 85 mph.
You can “drive” like this for miles, even, potentially across states for as long as there’s gas in the tank. But if you want to pass or change lanes for any reason, you must grab the steering wheel. If you touch the brakes, you’ll disengage the system, just like any standard cruise control, but if you give it more throttle to pass, just like any cruise control, Super Cruise will resume its original settings, once you’ve centered in the lane again. Super Cruise can slow the Cadillac down in tight freeway curves, such as those found in the American and Canadian Rockies.
The steering wheel LED goes from green to flashing-blue while you’re changing lanes or speeding up by overriding the ICC. Manual lane changing and speeding up back up Cadillac’s position that the human driver always is in control of the Cadillac.
“This is hands-free, but the driver is supervising the vehicle,” says Pam Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer for autonomous and electrified vehicles.
Red lights drive that point home. Super Cruise incorporates a GM-proprietary “driver attention system” that makes sure your eyes are on the road, even though your hands don’t need to be on the wheel. Take your eyes away for a long time, say to talk to the person in one of the passenger seats, or to jab at the touch-screen buttons on the CUE infotainment program and eventually the steering wheel LED and the dash display steering wheel icon go red.
How long does this take? Depends on the car’s speed, but if you don’t move your eyes back to the road, you get an audio warning and a haptic warning in the seat. Still not moved? The system eventually slows the car, then to a full stop in its lane, locking out Super Cruise for the key cycle. You must turn off the ignition and restart it to use Super Cruise again.
I tried to trigger the red light during my drive, by looking directly at Cadillac executive chief engineer Brandon Vivian, who was in the front-passenger seat. I could not get it to go red. I couldn’t take the idea of looking away from the road while traveling at 70 mph for that long, so I guess it works.
Will Super Cruise allow Cadillac owners to drive, or supervise, longer in a given day, I asked? Perhaps drivers will go for 10 hours instead of six, though I’m sure most CT6 owners won’t drive more than 200 miles before jumping on an airliner or private jet.
Super Cruise will allow its human drivers to arrive fresh for a business meeting or various arbitrage, Vivian told me. Well, he didn’t mention the arbitrage, but you get the idea.
We didn’t bring up the obvious: that Super Cruise also will make it safe for drivers to make calls and text on their smartphones, so long as their eyes are pointed toward the road. Cadillac would tell you to use the CT6’s Apple CarPlay or Android Auto instead, but the idea’s the same. Super Cruise will let you safely concentrate on that call to your broker while keeping you in the middle of the road without tapping the brakes every 500 feet.
Yes, you could have this level of hands-free control, more or less, in a Tesla Model S circa 2015, but as several of its less-intelligent owners proved with YouTube videos, Tesla’s system wasn’t well-tested. Super Cruise’s Driver Attention System makes it impossible, Cadillac says, to put your dog behind the wheel while you sit in the front passenger seat taking a selfie.
Cadillac first announced Super Cruise in 2012, and it was expected to launch in the ill-fated ELR extended-range electric. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced Autopilot in 2014, added it in 2015, and has since retrenched a bit, though he plans to amp it back up with a cross-country autonomous drive by the end of this year. For now, you have to keep your hands lightly on the wheel for the Tesla system to work.
But by taking its time, and mapping out 160,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian highways, Cadillac seems to have a much more robust system, far less prone to driver errors or hooning than Tesla’s Autopilot. Thus, Cadillac stands as the leader of this technology, to-date.
Price hasn’t been announced, though Barry Walkup told me at the New York International Auto Show last Spring that it would be part of a $2,500 “safety” technology package. The 2017 Cadillac CT6 Platinum has a base list price of $84,790, and it remains to be seen whether the ’18 model’s price goes up to absorb the Super Cruise cost. The CT6 Premium Luxury starts at $54,890. I suspect that when pricing for the ’18 models come in, the option price on the Premium Luxury will be somewhat higher than the $2,500 mentioned earlier this year.
Cadillac plans to add Super Cruise to the Chinese-market option list some time in the future (mapping that country should take a bit longer than five years). If it proves successful in moving autonomous technology forward, Super Cruise will quickly trickle down into Buicks, GMCs and Chevrolets.