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Cadillac’s new self-driving tech is no Tesla Autopilot — and that’s a good thing

Cadillac has been touting its Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving technology for several years and contrasting it with Tesla’s Autopilot system.

While Tesla has been fine with rolling out Autopilot in beta-ish fashion, gathering data and updating on the fly, Cadillac and parent General Motors have exercised abundant caution.

But Super Cruise is now live, and Cadillac invited me to test it out on a drive from New York City to Washington, DC. (This was the first leg of a coast-to-coast jaunt, and some of my fellow journalists would continue on from Washington to Cleveland.)

It was just me, a cooler of snacks and refreshments that Caddy had provided, and 226 miles of mostly highway driving in Cadillac’s flagship sedan, the CT6.

A cadre of curious scriveners gathered at Cadillac House in lower Manhattan, saddled up in their cars, and after a languid tour of the island under police escort and some helicopter cameras — no Super Cruise involved due to low speeds — I aimed the CT6’s elegant nose south and hit the New Jersey Turnpike.

Then I waited for Super Cruise to offer its services. In a press conference before we departed, Cadillac head Johan de Nysschen called SuperCruise the first fully hand-free freeway driving technology, so the next few hours would strain my belief that no one should ever trust a current-generation semi-self-driving technology enough to take their hands off the wheel.

However, in the interest of journalism, I decided to suspend my reservations and give Caddy the benefit of the doubt. For the next five hours (traffic was intermittently horrible, extending what ideally would be about a three-to-four hour drive) I would let the CT6 handle its own steering.

Super Cruise, like Tesla Autopilot, isn’t truly a self-driving technology — not in the same way that Waymo’s experimental vehicles have managed a wide variety of mobile challenges with limited human intervention.

Cadillac’s tech is essentially advanced cruise control plus situational automated steering. The carmaker has carefully defined its operating rules, starting with restricting to divided highways only (no oncoming traffic) where onramp-and-offramp access is extensive.

Beyond that, according to Caddy the SuperCruise algorithm demands that: adaptive cruise control is active; the forward collision system is set to alert and brake; the vehicle is on a limited-access freeway; camera or radar sensors are not covered, obstructed, or damaged; the system detects that the driver appears attentive; lane markings are clearly visible, not blurred by weather or other factors; and the “Teen Driver” feature isn’t on.

About that “driver appears attentive” part: Super Cruise uses a camera mounted on the steering column to monitor how attentive you’re being. It disengages if your eyes wander from the instrument cluster. So although it’s possible to engage in risky and distracting behaviors, such as texting or checking Instagram, the system will eventually bust you.

I engaged in such distractions while in the CT6 — again, journalism — and the system performed as advertised, dispensing warnings that I’ll detail in a moment. I’m not sure if I over violated the Super Cruise protocols, but it did seem to go into hibernation mode at one point, disabling itself until I stopped for lunch and then fired the car back up. For the record, if you repeatedly ignore the warnings and deactivations, the vehicle will eventually slow down and then stop itself, and make a call to OnStar, GM’s safety-and-communications software.

So how does it work?

Cadillac and GM have used laser-radar (Lidar) mapping to suss out 130,000 miles of highways, so SuperCruise is starting with a detailed digital landscape. For example, it won’t make itself available to the driver if the highway being used isn’t up to par, due to construction, for example.

Once you have adaptive cruise control (ACC) on, as well as collision avoidance, and have set the cruising system — a familiar process to any owner of a modern luxury vehicle with ACC — Super Cruise will signal that it’s ready by bringing up a steering-wheel icon on the cluster. Then you simply push the corresponding button on the steering wheel, and the entire cruise-control system goes green and a green light bar at the top of the wheel illuminates.

Then you can safely remove your hands from the wheel, restrained only by your own lack of anxiety about a self-steering $82,000 sedan.

The actual steering is human-like in long, sweeping curves — Super Cruise seems to plot a gradual arc — but in tighter curves, the system shimmies its way through in a manner that’s similar to what Tesla’s Autopilot does. There’s an occasional wiggle when some lane-keeping calculations are underway, but otherwise, Super Cruise is pretty placid. Even being hemmed in by three semis at 65 mph on the Jersey Pike didn’t seem to perturb it, and that’s usually a white-knuckle situation that compels me to take back total control.

If your eyes wander, the green light bar flashes to bring you back on point, and it you persist, red flashes are accompanied by a seat buzz. Continued obliviousness prompts more rapid red flashing, a warning message on the cluster, and a voice command telling you take control while the system deactivates (ACC remains on, however, as does the collision-avoidance tech).

For what it’s worth, Super Cruise works in both the CT6’s Tour and Sport modes, but toggling between them when the system is on makes no discernible difference in how the steering functions.

If you take the wheel while the system is humming away, to change lanes for instance (which Super Cruise, unlike Tesla Autopilot, doesn’t do), the steering-wheel light bar then the icons on the cluster turn blue for a moment, then revert to green.

So what’s the overall Super Cruise experience like?

I didn’t use it long enough to fairly review the technology, but I got a good idea of what it can and cannot do. It wasn’t consistently available on my 200-mile-plus drive, but that can be chalked up to the system’s inherent caution. It essentially will function only for stretches where you aren’t likely to get yourself in trouble and will have adequate time to retake control.

Thanks to the camera that’s keeping an eye on you the whole time, shenanigans are difficult, a big point in Super Cruise’s favor. You aren’t steering, but you are monitoring the tech. This degraded my situational awareness less than I thought it would. But if I used Super Cruise often, I could see how that might change.

Obviously, it’s possible to do stuff with your hands that might have formerly required intricate manual choreography. Air guitar. Juggling. Opening a tin of Altoids. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

At the end of my ride, I concluded that Super Cruise is excellent and reduces about 10%-15% of the cognitive demand of a long drive. I often use ACC, and I find that on long highway stretches, I can manage the steering with one hand. Taking away that requirement lowered my stress level and left me feeling slightly less fried mentally when I arrived in DC and landed in typical rush-hour traffic in our nation’s capital.

For anyone who routinely pilots the country’s vast highways, this could make Super Cruise more than worth the upgrade, which will amount to $5,000 extra bucks to finance the combined Lidar-camera setup.

I’ve spent my time with Tesla Autopilot and more recently with Volvo’s Pilot Assist feature. None are truly autonomous systems — rather, they layer automated steering on top of adaptive cruise control.

Volvo’s system made me just as nervous as Tesla’s more ambitious technology. Super Cruise wound up boring me, but in a good way. Autopilot purports to do much, but it’s still unclear how much confidence it can inspire (in me, not enough to go hands-free). Super Cruise left me feeling slightly more comfortable about hands-free driving, but only slightly, and that’s because the system is masterful at restricting itself to what it does well.

We’re in the early stages of the “iterative” approach to self-driving cars, with some automakers adding semi-autonomous features to vehicles consumers can buy today. Other companies, like Waymo, are shooting the Moon and striving to leapfrog the iterative improvements, aiming for full-on autonomy and assuming that wildly expensive technologies will fall in price.

The bottom line for my limited experience with SuperCruise is that it’s a very General Motors approach to self-driving (although don’t forget that GM also bought self-driving startup Cruise Automation is has begun making vehicles with far greater urban autonomous capability). Slow, steady, and careful wins the race, especially when demand for costly new self-driving tech is uncertain.

That’s doubtless why Super Cruise is coming first to Cadillac, and for the early rollout, will be available only on the CT6 for now. Caddy has been around for over 100 years. No need to rush into the future.