Cadillac’s new semi-autonomous luxury sedans hit the road from Manhattan to Los Angeles – NYDailyNews.com
Look ma, no hands!
To show off its latest technology, Cadillac launched a hands-free cross-country drive out of New York City on Monday. Twelve CT6 sedans, armed with “Super Cruise” automation, began the promotional trek from Cadillac House in lower Manhattan to Los Angeles, Ca. But these aren’t robot cars. Drivers will be at the helm and keep their eyes on the road.
The cars use cameras and sensors to direct its machinery. It also relies on high-tech LiDAR (light detection and ranging) map data, which Cadillac says has charted “every limited-access highway in the U.S. and Canada.” The car unleashes a series of warnings if it picks up the driver spacing out or away from the seat and can even stop the vehicle if necessary.
The hands-free technology is limited to highways and some of their ramps. Still, the vehicles will drive through 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, making stops at major cities to tout the high-tech tools.
The Super Cruise system costs $2,500 on top of the $66,290 base price. Drivers also must buy the $3,100 driver assist technology. The publicity drive marks the first time that Super Cruise technology will be used on New York City highways. Cadillac was granted a special license under a new law pushed by Gov. Cuomo.
“Cadillac is setting new industry standards with ground-breaking driver assistance technologies like Super Cruise,” said Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen.
Washington — At 60 miles per hour in the middle lane of busy Interstate 395 that connects the nation’s capital to its suburbs in northern Virginia, I took my hands off the steering wheel of a Cadillac CT6 equipped with General Motors’ new semi-autonomous Super Cruise system.
The system — which allows drivers to go hands-free once they are centered in highway lanes if their adaptive cruise control is turned on — took control from there.
It slowed the Cadillac when a car weaved in front of me, and braked when traffic slowed. When I looked off to one side, cameras monitoring my face caused red warning lights to flash and my seat to vibrate. Returning my gaze to the road ahead was enough to satisfy the system that I was ready to take over in an emergency.
Had I not paid attention, Super Cruise would have activated the car’s emergency flashers, slowed the CT6 to a stop and contacted GM’s OnStar communications system that there was a problem.
When it was time to switch lanes to exit the highway, a green light on top of the steering wheel turned red. The car allowed me to return to Super Cruise mode when I returned to a highway straightaway and centered it again in a lane. I was prompted to take control only when we approached a construction zone.
Drivers are alerted that Super Cruise is available for use when the car senses that it is centered in a lane on a “limited access” highway — the feature can’t be activated on two-lane highways or city streets. With the push of a button, Super Cruise takes over and the driver can go hands — and feet — free.
The Super Cruise system is standard on its high-end Platinum-edition 2018 CT6, which starts at about $85,300. It’s available as an upgrade on its Premium Luxury trims for an additional $5,000 on top of the $66,300 starting price.
A dozen Super Cruise-equipped CT6 sedans on Monday embarked on a cross-country drive to show off the new feature as the automaker begins delivering shipments to its dealerships. The cars will travel from New York to Los Angeles, crossing through 16 states and Washington, D.C., with stops in Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, Santa Fe and Phoenix.
Cadillac says the Super Cruise-equipped CT6’s are guided by lidar (light detection and ranging) mapping technology that is the product of over 130,000 miles of U.S. highway that were mapped out multiple times by its engineers. Lidar mapping works with in-car cameras, radar sensors and GPS to detect every curve and obstacle on the road ahead.
Drivers will be required to purchase an OnStar subscription after the initial three year trial ends to continue using system.
Cadillac has finally built a six-second vehicle.
That’s how long a driver can spend checking Instagram while the opulent 2018 version of its CT6 sedan drives itself. Then the first of three escalating warnings are triggered. Still, providing a somewhat-safe moment to scan an e-mail is a heroic feat of coding, one that allows the iconic luxury brand to claim parity with similar systems built by Mercedes, Volvo, and most of all, Tesla.
General Motors isn’t squandering this fleeting moment of glory. On Monday, it kicked off a coast-to-coast semi-autonomous trip from Cadillac’s New York headquarters—with a state police escort out of town no less—and gave us a seat for the first leg, all the way to the nation’s capital. (For speed freaks, the new CT6 is actually a five-second vehicle, as far as getting to 60 mph is concerned.)
Cadillac is marketing the gear—dubbed “Super Cruise”—as the “first, true hands-free” driving application on the road. It’s a bold claim for a brand so late to the robo-pilot party, but it’s not inaccurate. To date, similar systems have required a little steering feedback to ensure the driver is paying attention—a little hand, if you will. Cadillac engineers went in a different direction, planting a face-detection camera in the top arc of the steering wheel that constantly stares at its commander.
The downside: One gets a creepy feeling of being watched. The upside: One can safely crush a hefty cheeseburger at speeds up to 85 mph.
The Cadillac system will accelerate, brake, and keep a safe following distance per the pre-set cruise speed while carving gracefully through the corners. It wasn’t even phased by dark sunglasses, the purported bugaboo of face-scanning tech.
But Super Cruise is far less fun or spontaneous than the name suggests. The hardware—a web of radar-blasting pods and seven cameras, including an infrared unit—only works on freeways with exits and on-ramps, and only when cruise-control is activated and the vehicle is traveling dead-center in a lane. When the stately sled is compliant with those three prerequisites, an instrument panel token prompts that the system is ready and it takes control with a push of a button.
When in doubt, however, the CT6 defers to analog driving. For long stretches between New York’s Cadillac House and Washington, on pristine sections of the New Jersey Turnpike, the system stubbornly declined to launch. Meanwhile, changing lanes has to be done the old-fashioned way, and Cadillac warns drivers not to use the system in a tunnel, construction zone, or rainstorm. (Good luck Seattleites!)
While Tesla has swaggered about its self-driving aspirations, going so far as to call its system “autopilot,” GM is being far more conservative—playing the sober step-dad to Elon Musk’s cool uncle. “We do not seek to replace the driver,” said Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen. “True luxury means the flexibility of choice.”
For a road warrior stuck with a brutal daily commute, Super Cruise will be a balm—smoothing jangled nerves just a tad. But it won’t make a driver any more productive or well-rested.
As I zipped out of Manhattan and into New Jersey, jets from Newark Liberty hurtled overhead, filled with passengers binging on Broad City and scrolling through Trump tweetstorms. Down below, I sat behind the wheel with my arms folded, focused on the road ahead. Super Cruise felt like a box of Blue Apron groceries: The meal is meticulously planned and the ingredients prepped, but I still had to cook it.
Cadillac is well aware that Super Cruise is a small step even for an incremental one. The CT6 will be its only vehicle equipped with the self-driving system next year. And unless a customer opts for the most luxurious trim, Super Cruise will cost $5,000 extra.
In short, the burgeoning brand is not banking on Super Cruise to win customers away from BMW, Mercedes, or even Tesla. Few will buy a CT6 because it has a self-driving widget. But the system may keep quite a few potential buyers from ruling out the sedan entirely.
Cadillac chief de Nysschen called self-driving systems a critical step in the brand’s “long journey back to the pinnacle of premium.” In last year’s luxury car market, it was a neat trick. Next year, it’s table stakes. Cadillac just anted up.
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.