Hands Off With Cadillac Super Cruise, the Masterful One-Trick Pony of Self-Driving

Cadillac Super Cruise self-driving is real, it’s available now, and it works well. I just drove it for two days and 500-plus miles in the Cadillac CT6. The vast majority of the miles were hands-off the steering wheel with the car fully in control. Super Cruise is a big step up for autonomous driving, and builds in enough safety measures that there is zero chance that you’ll T-bone a tractor trailer because you weren’t paying attention.

Just understand: This is the beginning of real autonomous driving, not the end point. Super Cruise is truly hands-off driving meant to be used on the 160,000 miles of divided-lane, limited-access highways in the US and Canada. To get Super Cruise, you must buy the top-of-the-line CT6 Platinum starting at $ 84,790, or buy the $ 5,000 Premium Package on the three lesser CT6 trim lines. For all the automakers who have announced autonomous driving, today it is pretty much still just Cadillac and Tesla who are delivering self-driving.

What It’s Like Behind the Wheel

Super Cruise steering wheel.

Super Cruise keeps you centered in the lane, and if there’s a car in front, paces it so you’re never too close. That sounds a lot like adaptive cruise control plus lane centering assist. Actually, there is a whole lot more happening below the surface, but not a whole lot more on the surface. Super Cruise does go beyond the lane departure warning / lane keep assist / lane centering assist available on many cars of the last several years. Super Cruise keeps it up for miles at a time, and allows you to be hands-off so long as you don’t let your eyes wander from straight ahead for more than 5-10 seconds.

Super Cruise aggressively attacks curves in the road and adjusts itself if it slips from dead-center. On the CT6 I drove with a twin-turbo V6, the car might shift a couple feet from dead center on a curve and then would reposition itself quickly. It’s unsettling at first, but the car never slips past the lane marking, and you get used to it. Correction: You’ll probably get used to it. Your partner or spouse might or might not. The first week or two, you need to think positive thoughts, such as “May the Force be with you.”

I was part of the coast-to-coast media tour that kicked off in New York City, starting with a police escort around Manhattan island where Super Cruise only kicked in occasionally, then down through New Jersey to Washington DC, and then on day two northwest to Cleveland. We drove 550 miles, and outside the three cities, the CT6 ran virtually all on autopilot. Mile after mile after mile.

Super Cruise represents Level 2 autonomous driving on a scale of 0 to 5. Level 2 means multiple driver assists work together to provide some self-driving, but the driver must always be ready to take over.

Limitations of Super Cruise 1.0

There is no one-step, one-button process that takes you from driver-driving to autonomous-driving. For non-tech types, it may seem a hassle to light off Super Cruise. Cadillac says it’s easy to master, but they also said that about the Cadillac CUE infotainment system. (Sorry, cheap shot: The CT6 is likely the last Caddy to launch with old CUE.) To make Super Cruise go, you must: Make sure the Super Cruise master button at the bottom of the steering wheel is on. Then invoke adaptive cruise control at a comfortable speed. Then find the center of the highway lane (not as easy as it seems), watch for a steering wheel icon in the 12-inch LCD instrument panel to light up (while keeping yourself centered), and tap a button next to the ACC button. If the wheel icon turns green, you’re Super Cruising. A lighted bar at the top of the steering wheel also turns green.

Super Cruise disengages from time to time, but always with warning. I had Lyndon Lie, Cadillac’s chief engineer for premium cars, along with me in the right seat to explain the disconnects, which made it less mysterious. Owners won’t have that luxury, but over time they should figure it out.

The main cause of Super Cruise disengagements is that you’re not paying attention to the road and Super Cruise ratted you out via its driver-facing camera atop the steering column. I found it could warn you, and then disconnect after as little as 5-10 seconds of inattention, meaning it senses you’re not looking at the road. It even knows if you’re facing forward but looking down at the phone in your lap, open to the texting screen. It knows this even if you’re wearing sunglasses.

If you’re about to get off the limited access highway, Super Cruise disengages with plenty of warning, meaning many seconds, not minutes.

Super Cruise disengages if the lidar-car mapping of the highway segment made months ago is incomplete for this section–for instance, if the highway was reduced to one lane for road construction. It will be remapped and you’ll get an automatic download, via OnStar, with the next quarterly download. If it’s a safety issue, such as a road closure that Cadillac is told about, the update comes sooner.

A couple times during testing, the car disengaged for no apparent reason, again with several seconds warning. The driver doesn’t know if this is an unmapped segment or if for some other reason Super Cruise cut out. I didn’t believe it was ever unsafe, only that it made me curious as to the cause.

Why Super Cruise Won’t Change Lanes (Yet)

Super Cruise can’t change lanes. Actually, it could, says Cadillac’s Lie, but it won’t be enabled until Cadillac has full confidence–100 percent confidence–it will change lanes safely every time. That means either Cadillac technology is behind compared with Tesla’s Autopilot, or Cadillac has a higher standard of confidence and safety. Take your pick.

The lane change part is a no-brainer to implement: You signal your intention to, say, change one lane to the left by flicking the turn signal stalk. The blind spot detection and side radars look to see that nothing is in the lane or approaching quickly, then moves the car left. That’s all there is to it. But it calls for BSD strong enough to detect a fast-closing car. If the Porsche in the high speed lane is closing at 30 mph faster than you, and the lane change maneuver takes three seconds, the sensors must be able to see at least a football field behind behind you.

Super Cruise currently doesn’t operate beyond 85 mph. In a handful of wide-open western states where the speed limit is 75 or 80 mph, and one could thus drive more-or-less legally at 86 mph, you won’t be able to. Ditto for Cadillacs sold in Autobahn-speed countries. If this is your biggest life problem, you’re in better shape than people in the path of this summer’s Caribbean storms.

There are two situations that can be scary, especially for the passengers, that could be lessened by changing lanes yourself. Like all radar systems I’ve driven, Super Cruise is susceptible to cars ahead crossing lanes and cutting into your lane without leaving enough room. It also doesn’t currently compensate for vehicles to the side, 18-wheelers especially, that drift close to your lane. The driver can manually move the car closer to the far side lane marking to compensate. Cadillac’s Lie says say Super Cruise compensating countermeasures could be added, automatically, as Cadillac gets more road-testing miles of experience.

Meanwhile, you can change lanes yourself with Super Cruise active: Tap your turn signal and turn the steering wheel. There is a momentary feel of resistance as you overcome of the resistance from Super Cruise, the wheel LEDs turn blue, and then the wheel moves smoothly. Center yourself in the next lane, the car usually regains steering control, and the wheel goes green, indicating Super Cruise is again in charge.

More than Meets the Eye: How Super Cruise Works

Driver attention camera.

Start with the idea Super Cruise is lane centering assist plus full-range, low-speed-follow adaptive cruise control, on steroids. Then add cameras: the forward-facing windshield camera also used for active safety systems, four surround vision cameras, and the driver-attention camera on the steering column (photo inset).

The front camera alone detects left and right lane markings, a lane-center estimate, and the car’s heading. The steering wheel camera uses an LED array to illuminate the driver’s face at night and to see through sunglasses. If the eyes can’t be seen, it falls back to facial/bone structure recognition to be sure the driver is looking down the road.

Also add multiple radars, both long- and short-range, facing forward and slightly to the front sides and rear.

Cadillac partnered with Usher (Geo Digital) to map US/Mexico roads with lidar, and provide precise data on road curvature, number of lanes, and entrance/exit lanes. General Motors owns this map data, so it won’t show up on competitors’ cars, although long-term, there are economies of scale in working together on safety. There could also be economies of scale in getting data from future autonomous vehicles with on-board lidar. To be clear: Super Cruise cars use lidar maps, but they don’t have lidar scanners on-board.

Super Cruise super-precise lidar map of road and surroundings.

The Trimble high-precision GPS in the car is accurate to 2 meters, which is excellent, but not enough on their own to position the car in a 12-foot highway lane.

A multi-color LED array is embedded at the top of the steering wheel. It’s solid green when Super Cruise is engaged and all is well. Then there are three escalation levels. The wheel flashes green if there’s a problem, such as the driver is looking away, which can be corrected easily. With escalation 2, the bar flashes, Super Cruise disengages, and the car coasts (and the driver takes over the throttle). With escalation 3, there are voice alerts, the brakes are applied, and the system is locked out. In the case of a system failure and driver non-response, the rear-wheel steering will move the car to the roadside. Cadillac has clearly considered all the worst-case situations.

2018 Cadillac CT6: Should You Buy?

Super Cruise is an amazing tool, if obviously evolving. If you buy a Cadillac CT6, it’s a must-have feature. You need the top-line Platinum trim where it’s standard. On lower models (starting around $ 55,000), you can order the Premium Luxury package ($ 5,750 in Canada). It comprises Super Cruise, adaptive cruise control (which functions on roads where Super Cruise doesn’t), forward and reverse automatic braking, 20-inch all-season tires, active rear steering, and magnetic ride control. That suggests the Super Cruise portion is on the order of $ 1,000-$ 2,000 were it a standalone option–not bad for Level 2 self-driving that’s well polished.

The CT6 is Cadillac’s flagship sedan at 204 inches long, the same size as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It is well-equipped, nice inside, and has onboard Wi-Fi. At the same time, it’s tough to compete in the segment. The Cadillac of motor cars, as the old saying (updated) goes, is now the S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, and Lexus LS, as well as premium SUVs. There, Cadillac is good in a field of very good vehicles. Look for a follow-on flagship before 2020 as Cadillac, under former Audi boss Johan de Nysschen and a crew of former Audi, BMW, and Mercedes execs, strives to make Cadillac more competitive. Cadillac has decided there’s more to life than being better than Lincoln.

As for Super Cruise, it’s a fabulous tool. There are lots of little gotchas that the driver can work through; you may not get the sense of the mostly minor issues if you see a broadcast report with video of de Nysschen and New York Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul kicking off the Super Cruise tour, or watch a 90-second online review. Super Cruise is both richer and more complex than you’d suspect from quickie news coverage. Either way, the concerns are outweighed by the miles and miles of effortless highway driving Super Cruise offers. This is a fabulous tool that tech- and safety-minded drivers will wish could be on every car.

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