Two years doesn’t seem like a long time. However, in that period since Cadillac was forced to push back the release of its Super Cruise system, the automotive market has been flooded with driver assistance features and semi-autonomous systems that have all but made the hype around it dwindle. Even after a tragedy and major lawsuit stemming from the misinterpretation of its name, Tesla’s Autopilot still reigns supreme, as improvements to the software continue to be made, giving its fanboys plenty to smile about.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding Autopilot though, Tesla has made it clear that the system still requires drivers’ hands on the steering wheel as an immediate backup plan should something go wrong. For those who think this is pettiness, there are plenty of YouTube videos to justify Tesla’s request.
Super Cruise on the other hand now marks the first system an automaker itself has designated “hands-free.” With its debut finally here and luxury buyers/tech junkies still contemplating whether the hefty investment is worth it, I can personally attest to at least one thing: it works as advertised.
After a full two-day road trip using Cadillac’s answer to self-driving technology, I became well acquainted with Super Cruise. Behind the wheel of a 2018 CT6, I joined a long convoy for a drive that took us from New York City down to Washington D.C., then across Western Pennsylvania up to Cleveland.
It might seem like an excessive amount of driving, especially after Nissan’s recent ProPilot demonstration was nothing more than a loop around Manhattan, but I honestly can’t complain. On a drive route largely consisting of interstate highways, Super Cruise did most of the work.
The long trip was part of Cadillac’s cross-country promotion of the long-awaited feature. As members of the first wave, multiple media reps were given a premier look at the next step toward autonomy. And although it has plenty of limitations, as most current systems do, it lived up to its name and provided an experience that’s hard not to smile at.
In its most basic terms, Cadillac’s Super Cruise is a feature that combines adaptive cruise control with a lane-centering system allowing drivers to operate the vehicle hands-free in a single lane on a limited-access highway.
While this description may seem indistinguishable from the rest of the world of autonomous technology, what sets Super Cruise apart is its use of Lidar mapping with real-time data as well as high-precision GPS tracking, tools attributed to GeoDigital spinoff Ushr Inc. and GM partner Trimble. Add in a front camera and you have a system that can read road curvature data as well asdetect lane markings, the number of available lanes, upcoming on or off-ramps, and much more. It wasn’t until we got on the road that I realized how accurate this array of technology working together really was.
Our voyage began with the accompaniment of a police motorcade that guided us throughout New York City to the George Washington Bridge on our way to the state highway. Despite the frustration of not being able to engage the Super Cruise on our hour long parade through a metropolitan area, I have to admit there are worse cars to be forced to ride your brakes in. Still, it’s restrictions like these that will unfortunately give the Super Cruise a limited audience (along with the $5,000 it adds to the CT6’s price tag).
Once we hit the open road for the real test, all of these irritations quickly went out the window. Immediately when the car’s location met the system’s requirements of a divided, restricted freeway, a small gray steering wheel shaped icon appeared on the instrument cluster, indicating Super Cruise was ready to engage. At the press of a button the light bar across the top of the actual steering wheel lit up green and the car was in control. After setting my preferred speed for the adaptive cruise control, I slowly forced myself to let the system take over. For some this may take longer than others, and I’ll admit my hands hovered over the steering wheel a solid ten minutes before I let Super Cruise do its thing. However, once I got over the fear of putting my life in the hands of a machine, it made for a drive smoother than I think I could have provided.
Unlike some lane-centering systems that can put you in a game of ping pong bouncing back and forth between the lane markings, Super Cruise kept the car in a more consistent position. Turns were gradual, fluid and never teetering on the edge of other lanes, even on the winding, hilly two-lane freeways of Pennsyltucky. Its braking and accelerating were highly responsive and efficient and made for as helpful an adaptive cruise control system as any I’ve found. At points it became hard to remember I was still ultimately responsible for the wheel. However, this is a mistake Super Cruise does allow.
That same light bar on the steering wheel also contains infrared emitters on both ends that make for an effective driver attention system that catch your eyes if they begin to drift away from the road for too long. After several seconds of non-attentiveness, that green bar begins to blink. If the steering wheel’s sensors do not feel your hands immediately grasp it, that bar will flash red, the warning system will beep, and the instrument cluster will indicate Super Cruise has disengaged. If this still isn’t enough to cause the driver to take over, a voice prompt will sound, and with the hazard lights flashing the brakes will be applied. The driver will then be “locked out” of Super Cruise until they restart the car.
Fortunately, I never made it past stage 2.
Super Cruise is by no means a perfect system. There was more than one occasion when the system disengaged while I felt confident I’d been paying attention. This same “escalation” as Cadillac calls it, happens when the system’s mapping and positioning determines the road no longer meets its requirements. A few times it was difficult to determine if such was the case, but the alert system sure is loud enough for you to get the memo to take the wheel no matter the issue.
Cadillac’s engineers warned us ahead of time it could not detect construction zones, and unfortunately the eastern Ohio interstate had plenty of annoying lane-widening projects underway. In addition, the Super Cruise availability icon would blink on and off at random times and it was apparent there was a clear delay in either the mapping or lane recognition. Despite these small inconsistencies though, I find it hard to complain too much when the system was successfully navigating for hours at a time.
As impressive as it is, plenty will still question Super Cruise’s actual practicality, and rightfully so. With your attention to the road still required (and tightly monitored), as well as your hands free to take over if need be, this is by no means full autonomy. In a way, some might find it an inconvenience as they struggle to stay awake and alert while essentially doing nothing. The same commuters who this feature is targeted toward could find themselves nearly dozing off at the wheel without something forcing them to focus on their early morning drive.
Quibbles aside, this is a crucial step in the path toward an autonomous future and Cadillac deserves praise for taking it. While its Audi competitor continues to tout the “conditional automated driving” system of its upcoming A8, which it claims is capable of unmonitored driving, the route Cadillac is on is still plenty remarkable, even if it has chosen to take the safe one.