Cadillac's Super Cruise Makes The Self-Driving Future Seem Possible

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The building blocks for autonomous cars are already here, but so far the biggest step into that world for actual consumers has been Tesla’s Autopilot. Now General Motors is going there too with a semiautonomous highway driving feature called Super Cruise, available on the new Cadillac CT6. Questions about how it stacks up to Autopilot will be endless, so I’ll get this out of the way first: Super Cruise is not quite as capable as Autopilot, but it’s objectively safer.

Trust me, I know. I recently spent a dozen hours driving across four states in a new CT6, with most of time spent on the highway, the only domain for Super Cruise.

(Full Disclosure: Cadillac flew me from New York City to Cleveland, put me up in opulent hotels for three days, provided food and drinks, and paid for gas throughout the trip—all so I could try the Super Cruise system myself and not rely on the input from writers who aren’t me.)

By safer, to be clear, it’s a minor take. Super Cruise is like having a high school teacher sitting in front of you, telling to keep your eyes forward throughout class. Look away for a moment, and a red line starts blinking in your face.

With Autopilot, which I spent a couple dozen hours with this summer, the safety warnings that ask a driver to resume control of the wheel are prevalent, but I quickly found I was able to frequently wander and gaze about the road without issue.

With Super Cruise, I quickly realized I had to look ahead no matter what.

So, Super Cruise is not so much an answer to Autopilot as much as it’s a helpful driving companion that’ll help familiarize consumers with the technology and illustrate the benefits that come from autonomous tech. Most drivers are generally weirded out about autonomous driving features—at least for now—and one of the simplest ways to help familiarize people with the technology is through baby steps. And that’s what Super Cruise is: a tip-toe along the path toward full autonomy.

That’s not to understate the significance of what Super Cruise accomplishes, and GM knows it’s something to champion. The automaker has, over the last several weeks, sent a Cadillac team on a coast-to-coast trip to show off the new CT6.

I don’t want to belabor the Tesla comparisons, but the tech-heavy CT6 should make for a stellar competitor to the Model S if you find yourself buying a car purely for the driver aids. A Super Cruise-equipped CT6 with the Premium Luxury Trim starts at $71,300, a few thousand dollars shy of what’s now the cheapest Model S.

That’s all fine on paper; here’s what Super Cruise is like on the road.

Photo: Ryan Felton/Jalopnik
Photo: Ryan Felton/Jalopnik

How It Works

Cadillac’s proudly calling Super Cruise the first “true hands-free” driving feature on the road today—and that’s one way it differentiates from from competitors. Tesla’s Autopilot and others require drivers to shimmy the steering wheel a tad to signal they’re still paying attention.

That little camera is always keeping an eye on you.
That little camera is always keeping an eye on you.

That’s one aspect where Super Cruise sets itself apart. To make it work, Cadillac engineers plopped a face-detection camera along the top of the steering wheel that’s always monitoring your face.

Along with a suite of cameras and sensors, Super Cruise relies on and incorporates LiDAR mapping data; the company says it has mapped every highway mile of U.S. and Canada—160,000 in total—to ensure the system’s primed to work.

Any construction projects can be imputed to the system by GM, so Super Cruise is prevented from being activated in those relevant areas. A high-precision GPS system notifies the car where it’s at within two meters.

Super Cruise sounds like a hyper-intense version of cruise control, and while it’s a refined, far-more advanced iteration, it’s still eminently practical and timid. That’s because is has a number of limitations.

The system can only be deployed where GM says it’s OK: that is, on divided, limited-access highways, with defined on and off-ramps. And you have to be square in the middle of the road to turn on the feature before it can be activated.

When that simple dance is complete, a green icon lights up on the dash, and with the press of a button, the car takes over.

Unlike Autopilot, Super Cruise maxes out at 85 mph. On the second day of our journey, I managed to find a glitch, seemingly by chance. The way the system’s designed to work, after Super Cruise is engaged, you’re only supposed to be able to press the + key to increase speed to 85. From there, you can hit the throttle—but as soon as the car reaches 92 mph, Super Cruise is supposed to engage.

Photo: Ryan Felton/Jalopnik
Photo: Ryan Felton/Jalopnik

During one stretch of the day, when no other car was around on the highway, I wanted to confirm that was the case. I managed to lock in a speed of 95 mph, and the CT6 hit that speed before I relented and brought it back down. (Any ticket was on me after all.) Later, I tried again and locked in a speed at 105 mph.

When I asked Cadillac about this, I initially received nothing short of puzzlement. That prompted Robb Bolio, Cadillac’s vehicle performance manger who was involved in the Super Cruise project, to conduct some extra tests, and indeed a glitch was discovered.

“So we went back and did a bunch of testing on it,” he said. “What it actually is, there’s a sneak path for the set speed, but the only way to get it to do it is if you rapidly push it or push and hold the resume+ button and you get the set speed to show a higher value”

“As soon as you let go of that button it goes right back to 85,” he added. “It only showed that when you push and hold it and it doesn’t do it every time.”

Illustration for article titled Cadillacs Super Cruise Makes The Self-Driving Future Seem Possibleem/em

That didn’t exactly explain what happened to me, but the vehicles we tested were preproduction models, and Bolio said there’s no safety issue presented by the glitch. And Cadillac said they’re actively working to finesse the software.

“We’ll work through it,” Bolio said.

The system also doesn’t allow for lane changes, something that puts Autopilot a step up in capability—hit the turn signal there and the car will do so if the maneuver is determined to be safe. Bolio said customers didn’t express significant interest in the idea, and Cadillac believes lane changes should be a “driver-initiated maneuver.”

“We want them in the loop during lane changes,” he said. “That’s really the gist of it. It wasn’t a priority to our customers to have that feature.”

The system’s hardware could allow for it to be added down the line, he said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to improve and offer more features,” Bolio said. (Autopilot, unlike Super Cruise, allows for over-the-air, remote updates to the driver-aid system. The only OTA updates that happen for Super Cruise are for map updates.)

Illustration for article titled Cadillacs Super Cruise Makes The Self-Driving Future Seem Possibleem/em

And changing lanes, really, isn’t that much of a heavy lift. When Super Cruise is engaged, a green line appears atop the steering wheel; when you’re ready to switch lanes, the line turns blue. As soon as you’re centered in the adjacent lane, a green line reappears, signifying the car’s back in control.

Bolio’s reasoning about not implementing automatic lane changes echoes Cadillac’s emphasis on delivering an extra-safe, but reliable, semi-autonomous system to customers.

Throughout two days of driving, I kept trying to trick the Super Cruise steering wheel camera, but even peering downward could set off the warning system. Sunglasses, known to be problematic for face-scanning tech, were no match for the camera, either. I could check a text, maybe, but I was more or less resigned to enjoying the view directly in front of me. And that’s OK!

Illustration for article titled Cadillacs Super Cruise Makes The Self-Driving Future Seem Possibleem/em

Why Now

GM has been working on Super Cruise for a long time, and with automakers pouring billions into developing self-driving technology, it’s no surprise that a sudden crush of vehicles are set to have semi-automated features.

Is Super Cruise better than Autopilot? Depends on what you want, I suppose. Tesla recommends only using the Autosteer function on highways with a center divide and clear lane markings; as I quickly realized over the summer, though it can be used in off-highway environments, it’s not ideal whatsoever.

But in the recommended highway scenario, Autopilot was just as relaxing and comfortable to use as Super Cruise. Personally, I prefer the auto-lane change function; that seems like a feature that’s entirely subjective, though.

Both make long-distance treks far easier to handle. When you can accept—and it’s definitely hard—that the car’s capable of handling most of the highway driving, so long as you’re paying attention, you’ll find that lengthy drives aren’t so tiresome.

Many of us who love to drive are concerned what place we’ll have as technology like this becomes more common. But even if you love driving, I see the advantages in helping with some of the most boring and monotonous aspects of operating a car, like endlessly long freeway drives. The CT6 is a fun and powerful machine. Giving the driver some aid on long road trips doesn’t take away from that.

Also, being that this is GM—inherently a much larger company than Tesla—it’s not hard to imagine the tech will trickle down into other models soon. (They haven’t said yet, for the record.) So Super Cruise and its variants could very well be most people’s first real experience with semi-autonomous cars, rather than the tech-forward first adopters who tend to go for Teslas.

Where GM succeeded here is that Super Cruise worked as it was marketed, besides the small glitch I found. In an environment where many are still skeptical or slowly becoming accustomed to autonomous tech, that’s a good thing.

I can’t say how many customers Cadillac will win over because of the system, but it shows that GM’s serious about having a stake in an automotive future that cedes more control to automation.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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DISCUSSION

generalpurpose
General Purpose

I read the article and I’m trying to understand exactly how you are supposed to use this system, what benefit it imparts. It seems like it’s just glorified adaptive cruise control, which MB has had for 10+ years and is common on workaday vehicles like Jeep Cherokees. It dictates a safe speed in a single lane given the conditions of cars in front of you. Worthy advance for any automatic car.

But any further steps involving steering are problematic. From what I gather, it will simply follow the lane you are in. Tesla already does that. Given American highways, that’s not a lot of curvature to worry about. 

Given current tech, Cadillac’s system doesn’t claim to change lanes and because it doesn’t work off the highway, it won’t deal with traffic lights or making turns for you. OK, that’s fine, Tesla can’t do that perfectly either. But Super Cruise also doesn’t have OTA updates, so it never will, while AutoPilot does have OTA updates, so someday it may. How does Caddy expect their technology to hold up if it gets no updates for its whole lifespan?

Auto-driving is not a proposition given to gradualness. You’re either driving and responsible or not driving and not. If I’m in the driver’s seat and might need to take control, there is no comfortable, logical place to put my hands except on the wheel. My eyes need to be on the road if I can’t rely on the system. There is very little effort saved if I have to be this aware. What’s the benefit? What surplus of mental energy is gained by relying on the system for minor-scale assistance that is not outweighed by the worry that I need to step in for it immediately without time to get adjusted to driving with complete control (since I’ve yielded some of it up to the system)?

It’s true that autonomous driving cars do not need to be perfect, just better than any human. Cadillac doesn’t think we are there yet. Tesla was burned for thinking we were. I’m sure we will get there pretty soon, but you can’t rush this shit and pretend you’re doing something amazing when it’s a half-measure... unless you’re making and shipping ongoing improvements like Tesla is.