Cadillac Leaps Toward Autonomous Driving With Its New Super Cruise System

October 16, 2017 I FORBES

Folding my hands in my lap, I sat behind the wheel of Cadillac’s flagship CT6 sedan and merrily chatted with President Johan de Nysschen, who stretched out in the passenger seat, as the car steered itself down Interstate-10 for the six-hour drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

The CT6 was equipped with a $5,000 option that made the hands-free trip possible: Cadillac’s new Super Cruise driver assist system, the brand’s answer to the self-driving revolution. Billed by Cadillac as the first true hands-free driving system for the highway, Super Cruise uses a system of cameras, radar, and sensors to steer itself on limited-access highways at speeds of up to 85 mph.

Once I merged onto the freeway, centered the car in the lane, and pressed a button to activate Super Cruise, a green LED light atop the steering wheel indicated it was OK to go hands-free, making me feel unmoored at first. Unlike systems from other manufacturers, Super Cruise doesn’t require the driver to touch the wheel occasionally as proof that he or she is paying attention. Though it can’t change lanes or steer itself onto the exit ramp, it can brake itself and slow itself to round simple curves.

That meant that de Nysschen and I could cruise westbound on the I-10 for hours without touching the wheel or stepping on a pedal. The drive was the last leg of Cadillac’s cross-country tour that originated in New York City and saw a fleet of a dozen CT6 sedans travel 3,600 miles to allow journalists to test the system.

A few times in the late afternoon as we neared Los Angeles, the tour’s final destination, Super Cruise stopped and handed control back to me. “It must be because of the sun,” de Nysschen said. “The system can’t detect the lane markings in the glare.” (Then, making the best of the situation, de Nysschen turned to me. “This car has 404 horsepower,” he instructed. “Use them.”)

Cadillac is still working out the kinks, but Super Cruise, which debuted at dealerships last month, is fully functional and expected to trickle down to other models in the brand’s lineup. It’s standard in the top-of-the-line CT6 Platinum trim, which starts at $88,295, and offered as an option on the luxury sedan’s mid-grade trims.

The system is made possible by General Motors engineers' use of LIDAR, a method of measuring distances using laser and radar, to map 210,000 miles of interstate in the U.S. and Canada and store speed limit and map curvature data. (Changes to the interstate system will update Super Cruise over the air through GM's OnStar system.) When the freeway bends, Super Cruise uses speed and map data to slow the car through curves before resuming speed.

According to Cadillac, this latest iteration of hands-free driving puts the car at Level 2 out of five on the autonomous vehicle scale because the driver still needs to keep his or her eyes on the road. The driver attention system, along with the mapped LiDAR data, is Super Cruise’s biggest contribution to the evolution of self-driving cars, according to Barry Walkup, chief engineer of Super Cruise. “The driver attention system has gone above and beyond what we ever thought it would, in terms of the ability to be able to coach the driver to keep the driver engaged,” he said. "It’s a really, really effective system.”

A camera mounted on the steering wheel continuously monitors the driver’s face – specifically his or her gaze, even from behind sunglasses – to ensure that he or she is ready to take control if necessary. It’s possible to look away for several seconds and say, take an Instagram of the steering wheel moving as if by phantom power, but if the camera doesn’t detect the driver’s eyes within 10 seconds or so, the green light flashes a warning.

After that, the warnings escalate and Super Cruise begins shutting down. If the driver doesn’t immediately return his or her gaze to the road, Super Cruise will disengage, flashing a red light to indicate it’s returning control to the driver. Then, if the driver fails to seize this last chance, the car turns on its hazards and comes to a complete stop. (We did not test this on our trip, but presumably drivers following directly behind must be alert enough not to crash into a disabled car.)

 

“We’re inventing as we go, so we’re kind of building the airplane as we’re flying it,”  Walkup said. "There’s not a manual I can open up that tells me how to do this. It’s an inventive process.”

(Disclosure: Cadillac paid for my travel expenses to participate in this test drive.)