Payne: Super Cruise helps Cadillac pull ahead on driverless

Henry Payne

Dallas — Self-driving technology has made a great leap: I can now eat mashed potatoes behind the steering wheel, not just French fries.

With Super Cruise taking care of the driving, Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne can afford to take his hands off the steering wheel to eat a chicken sandwich and drink a pop.

Credit Cadillac, which this month unveiled Super Cruise in its 2018 CT6 sedan. It’s the first true hands-free driving system available to the public.

Compared to other state-of-the-art systems I’ve tested from Tesla, BMW, Audi and Volvo, the new system from General Motors Co. is the most mature.

GM took a notably different approach than Tesla, until now the standard in self-drive technology: Super Cruise works only on the 160,000 miles of U.S. interstates and other divided, limited-access highways that Cadillac has digitally mapped. Unlike the Tesla, Super Cruise automatically disengages on city streets or two-lane highways.

Super Cruise allowed me to drive hands- and feet-free up to 85 miles per hour. It handled the steering, acceleration and braking, all the while monitoring my face with a camera to determine if my eyes were on the road and ensure I was able to take over if necessary. Other “self-driving” systems limit me to one hand on the steering wheel and one hand in the French fry container.

Credit Cadillac with modestly calling its system Super Cruise. Contrast that with Tesla, which calls its self-drive feature Autopilot, a direct reference to self-flying airplanes. Most automakers shy from the autonomous label; BMW, for example, calls its system Driver Assistance.

Cadillac emphasizes that its system is a driver aid and not fully self-driving. Super Cruise is a Level 2 system, meaning it is partially automated and capable of steering, braking and accelerating, but leaving the driver responsible for more complex maneuvers.

Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne eats a chicken sandwich and drinks a pop with his hands off the steering wheel with the Cadillac SuperCruise system activates while cruising across the country on a media tour showcasing self-driving technology.

Super Cruise stays within its limits at all times, allowing passengers to relax — or comfortably lunch — while not putting them in unsafe situations. In a world of hype promising robot cars, rolling office space and living rooms on wheels, that’s progress.

Conservatively marketed with training for buyers at dealerships, Super Cruise is an evolutionary step from the limited adaptive cruise-control offered in most luxury vehicles today. In short, it works.

The Super Cruise system is standard on the Platinum-edition 2018 Cadillac CT6, which starts at about $85,300. It’s available as an upgrade on Premium Luxury trims of the CT6 for an additional $5,000 on top of the $66,300 starting price. Whether consumers will pay the premium, time will tell.

Driving the competition

I have experienced every state-of-the-art, self-driving system on the road: from fully autonomous Level 4 Uber Volvos and Google bumper-bots to Level 2 driver-assistance systems in the Audi A8, BMW 5, Volvo S90 and Tesla Model S.

I have driven Tesla’s Autopilot extensively, for example. Tesla aggressively markets Autopilot hardware (available on its Model S sedan, Model X SUV and upcoming Model 3 sedan) as autonomy-ready with the caveat that “it is not possible to know exactly when each element of ... functionality will be available, as this is highly dependent on local regulatory approval.”

A video on the company’s website shows Autopilot negotiating city streets with no human intervention. But in reality, Autopilot is no self-driver.

I recently took a Tesla onto congested Highway 101 south of Palo Alto. I tugged twice at the Tesla’s adaptive-cruise stalk to engage Autopilot, its eight onboard cameras and front radar expertly following traffic at 80 mph while maintaining a predictable path. Uniquely, the Model S accesses 12 ultrasonic sensors embedded in its skin to safely change lanes – hands-free – when I toggled the turn stalk.

But Autopilot doesn’t allow hands-free driving for long, repeatedly warning me about every 15 seconds to keep a hand on the steering wheel. This steering wheel-based driver engagement system is common to every Level 2 car except the camera-based Cadillac.

That attentiveness is crucial because the Tesla system will surrender as soon as it gets in over its head. Enter a high-speed interstate curve? Autopilot assumes the driver will take control. Exit to a stoplight? It’s your duty to stop. Try to drive twisty, two-lane roads? Forget about it.

Most importantly, Autopilot can’t see vehicles turn across your lane on a divided highway. No car radar can. Which is what got a Tesla driver killed in Florida two years ago, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The Model S radar looked right under a crossing semi-truck, never slowed, and the driver was decapitated by the trailer.

I experienced this troubling situation in a BMW 540i on Ohio’s U.S. 23, a divided stoplight-riddled four-lane south of Columbus. BMW Driver Assistance isn’t as sophisticated as Autopilot – its lane-keep tends to bounce between lane lines – but the system allowed me to perform semi-distracted tasks like eating lunch and checking emails.

But when a southbound semi misjudged and crossed my northbound lanes, I had to hit the brakes and steer. Adaptive cruise never reacted.

Driverless limitations

Cadillac’s Super Cruise avoids such scenarios by never putting you in situations it can’t control. That is, the system won’t engage unless you’re inside its limited-access highway “geo-fence.”

Enter a highway, push the Super Cruise button, then keep your eye on the glowing blue light at the top of the wheel. When it turns green, the system is active.

Leave the highway “geo-fence” and the light goes red, warning the driver — loudly — that you are off the grid and the driving chores are yours.

With Super Cruise’s playing field clearly defined, Cadillac exhaustively mapped every inch of highway. Combined with GPS, this mapping allows SuperCruise to place the car on the road with 2-millimeter accuracy through even high-speed turns – a crucial difference from other systems which rely only on on-board hardware.

Fully autonomous systems are still years away. And current Level 2 systems have big blind spots. So my expectations were low when I slipped behind the wheel of a 2018 Cadillac CT6 Premium for a 453-mile trip from Memphis to Dallas.

Freed of the helm, I sat as relaxed as if I were in my living room chair. I could enjoy my meal, thumb email and chat comfortably with passengers. But if the camera detected my head turned for any period of time (between 4 and 20 seconds, says Chief Program Engineer Daryl Wilson), the steering-wheel light would escalate warnings: 1) flash green 2) turn red 3) flash red and start braking while a “Wizard of Oz” voice boomed: PLEASE TAKE CONTROL OF VEHICLE.

Had I ignored those stepped-up escalations, the car would have turned on the emergency flashers and come to a full stop in the middle of the road. Cadillac deemed unmapped shoulders less safe than stopping in the middle of an interstate highway.

That driver-engagement requirement extends to places like work zones and tolls (because orange barrels and toll booths haven’t been mapped). The goal, says Wilson, is “convenience and comfort” without sacrificing safety.

Super Cruise isn’t perfect. It won’t activate in snow or heavy rain or if lane markers aren’t clearly visible. It doesn’t work if the camera or radar sensors are covered with road salt or ice. And about a third of sunglasses on the market create problems with the face-recognition software and shut the system down.

Wilson emphasized that Super Cruise is separate from GM’s research on Level 4 (highly automated) and Level 5 (fully automated) systems being developed on the Chevy Bolt.

I’m not confident there is a middle ground between Level 2 driver-assist systems and full autonomy. Until then, Cadillac’s Super Cruise is a responsible, real-world system that emphasizes the importance of human attention. Especially when eating mashed potatoes.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne