Putting Cadillac’s self-driving Super Cruise technology to the test

Shortly after we pulled on to Interstate 280, just north of Palo Alto, California, the Cadillac CT6 signaled to me that I was now ready to drive hands free.

Seconds later, I pressed a button. The top of the steering wheel lit up with a green light and the car was now under the control, and vision, of Super Cruise. I took my hands off the wheel and my feet off the pedals and for the next 15 minutes, as we drove through rush hour traffic, I did not touch the steering wheel.

“This takes driving to a whole new level,” said Robb Bolio, one of the lead engineers for autonomous-drive vehicles at General Motors. “Super Cruise lets you do other things, like make phone calls, but it’s not tedious or stressful. And on top of all that, it enhances your safety when you are driving.”

Bolio and other executives at Cadillac expect Super Cruise is a game changer — the type of technology that will prompt luxury car buyers to consider Cadillac instead of passing on the GM brand and opting for Mercedes, BMW or Lexus.

But more than anything, Super Cruise is GM’s answer to Tesla’s Autopilot technology, which made a huge splash when it was introduced two years ago. Autopilot dominates the conversation when car buyers and the general public talk about self-driving cars.

A Cadillac CT6 at the 2017 Washington Auto Show in Washington, USA on February 3, 2017.

Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
A Cadillac CT6 at the 2017 Washington Auto Show in Washington, USA on February 3, 2017.

“This is definitely a shot across the bow of Tesla, which already has Autopilot,” said Michelle Krebs, analyst for AutoTrader.com. “Cadillac is really trying to take Tesla on in that category of technology.”

There are some key differences between Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot.

The Super Cruise system includes a small camera on the steering column that watches the eyes of the driver. If you are not watching the road for more than a few seconds and you are texting, surfing the web on your phone or falling asleep, the camera on the steering wheel will prompt the Super Cruise to alert you to take control.

The first warning is the steering wheel flashing. After that, the CT6 sends an audio warning and the steering wheel starts flashing red, both telling you to take control.

If you continue to ignore the warnings and do not re-engage the car, Super Cruise will turn on the CT6’s hazard lights and slow down the car, eventually bringing it to a stop. At that point, an OnStar operator will reach out to the driver.

“How long it takes before the system notices a driver is not paying attention depends on your speed,” said Bolio. “If you are going 75 miles per hour, it’s three or four seconds, depending on the traffic around you. If you are in bumper-to-bumper traffic going 10 miles per hour, it’s a little longer.”

That’s the other major difference between Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. Super Cruise can only be engaged on the highway and does not automatically do lane changes. Tesla’s Autopilot allows drivers to signal a lane change and if the sensors on the car show the lane is free, it automatically moves the car over with the driver not having to touch the steering wheel.

In addition, Autopilot can be engaged in city driving, not just on the highway.

So after testing out Super Cruise, the question is whether I felt it changed my driving experience? I admit having the car watch me added a level security and reassurance. In addition, the system was intuitive and easy to use.

That said, I would love to see it expand beyond highway driving. There are plenty of major roads I use on the way to work where Super Cruise would make the drive far less frustrating as I constantly ride the brake in rush hour traffic.

Super Cruise will be offered on Cadillac CT6 models starting this fall.

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