In the rarefied air of full-size luxury cars, where prices start around $60,000 and buyers’ expectations are just as lofty, it’s tough to find a one-of-a-kind, breakout feature.
Cadillac has done it this year, though, by rolling out the best self-driving system on the market. Called Super Cruise, this fresh technology is so impressive that it overshadows everything about the car it’s attached to, the underrated CT6 sedan.
It even leapfrogs the much-hyped Autopilot capability Tesla rolled out in 2015, bringing the world one huge step closer to the promise of cars that can fully drive themselves.
Before you run to your local Cadillac dealer expecting to buy a car that lets you prop your feet on the dash and read a book while being whisked from place to place, you need to understand that even as the best system in the world, Super Cruise has some serious limitations.
The first is where it’s designed to work. If you’re on a limited-access freeway like most of America’s interstate highway system, you can turn on Super Cruise and take your hands and feet off the controls indefinitely.
In theory, it can drive you from city to city all day long. It’s absolutely incredible to experience a car driving itself on freeways, staying perfectly centered in the lane and moving with the flow of traffic for long periods of time.
In reality, though, the experience can be frustrating when Super Cruise turns itself off for unknown reasons. Perhaps the visibility isn’t good enough, the lanes aren’t marked clearly enough or it senses you’re driving in a construction zone, but it seems to disengage randomly without explaining its rationale.
The way it engages and disengages, though, is brilliant in its simplicity. When you’re on the freeway and press the Super Cruise button on the steering wheel, the entire top section of the wheel lights up in bright green to show you the system is active and the car is essentially driving itself.
When it disengages, it’s just as intuitive. The light bar changes from green to red, letting the driver know they need to take control once again.
Another important limitation: Super Cruise is not designed to let the driver stop paying attention to the road. Even though your hands and feet are completely free, you’re still expected to watch the road around you and be prepared to take over control in an instant.
To make sure the driver doesn’t nod off or start daydreaming, Super Cruise also uses an ingenious system to track how well you’re paying attention. A small camera at the top of the steering column is constantly watching your face, helping a computer judge where you’re looking and how well you’re paying attention.
If the camera sees you’re not paying attention to the road ahead for too long a period of time, it will first try to get your attention, and eventually prompt you to take control.
If the driver still doesn’t respond — perhaps because of a medical emergency — the car is capable of bringing itself to a full stop and automatically calling first responders through its OnStar system.
Compared to the vast majority of semi-autonomous systems available today, starting on cars as affordable as the base Toyota Corolla, Super Cruise is worlds ahead. It comes closer to true self-driving ability than anything else for sale today, including Tesla’s similar system I tested in the Model X SUV.
Traditionally, state-of-the-art technology starts in expensive cars and filters down to more affordable models over a number of years. That’s certainly the case with Super Cruise, which is only available as a $5,000 option on the CT6’s Premium Luxury trim. That puts its price tag somewhere around $75,000.
My hope is that General Motors can find a way to do two things with Super Cruise. One is very quickly making it available on a wider range of vehicles, from affordable Chevrolet hatchbacks to tough trucks and SUVs. The other is continuing to invest, improve and refine this system to make it function in more places, more consistently, with automatic upgrades available as it gets better in the years to come.
One exclusive Cadillac model that drives itself on the highway is amazing. But a whole fleet of vehicles that does this, as the technology gets smoother and more reliable, will change the world forever.