As someone that loves all types of vehicles, I find the rise of semi-autonomous vehicles to be frightening. Driving, at least for me, has always been more than just getting from point A to point B – it’s spending quality time with a machine that’s almost alive. A bunch of humans spent years designing, developing, and building the vehicle, the least I could do is thoroughly enjoy the machine and appreciate it for being more than just a hunk of metal.
Self-driving cars take humans out of the question, which essentially downgrades vehicles from characterful machines to personal items that are no different than that new iPhone bulging in your pocket. While a necessary part of enjoying one’s life, it’s no longer an item that has character or substance. And that, understandably, isn’t something that I’m really into.
But even me, a person that wants to not only save the manuals, but is also a huge fan of the concept of “stripper models,” has to admit that there are some aspects of driving that are tedious. Traffic, for instance, sucks. And I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area, which was recently rated to have the third worst traffic in the United States. So, I know all about traffic.
Long drives on the highway are also incredibly boring, especially when it comes to spending more than an hour on a major highway. So, while I’m not a huge fan of self-driving features, I can see where they would come in handy. And that’s why I was surprised to fall head-over-heels for a Cadillac CT6 equipped with the automaker’s Super Cruise system.
I recently went on an extensive journey that saw 12 journalists, including myself, go from Cleveland to Chicago and then to Memphis, Tenn. In case your geography is a little rusty, it was nearly 900 miles and covered a span of 13 hours. Thankfully, we were able to do the run over two days.
Before diving into the intricacies of General Motors’ Super Cruise system, it’s important to note that the CT6 sedans we were driving were amazing. They were fitted to the gills with things like massaging seats, Wi-Fi, an upgraded audio system, and other goodies that are way out of my reach. Sticker price on the vehicles we were driving were around $100,000 – way, way out of my reach.
I’ve spent a little time with the CT6 before and have to say that the sedan is truly a great car. It’s quiet, comfortable, and, with the 3.0-liter twin-turbo, pretty quick. There’s not a lot to dislike with the CT6 and as someone that stays away from American cars, that’s high praise. The addition of the Super Cruise system makes the CT6 even better and helps the sedan straddle the line between luxury and technology.
Super Cruise is GM’s answer to other self-driving systems on the market from Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and more. But unlike those systems, the one on the CT6 has one claim that others can’t match – being the first “hands-free” system on the market. While the majority of automakers exaggerate the specs and capabilities of their vehicles, Cadillac’s system really does allow for hands-free driving.
Getting the vehicle to drive itself, as one would expect, takes a lot of components. The vehicle utilizes a hardware suite, including various sensors and cameras that give the sedan a 360-degree view of its surroundings. The majority of these components are carried over from the regular CT6, but are recalibrated in a special way to give the vehicle its super powers.
The other side of the equation involves LiDAR Map Data, which is a fancy way of saying that GM spent a whole lot of time and money mapping roughly 160,000 miles of highways in North America (that includes Canada) using high-tech LiDAR. The vehicle also has high-precision GPS that can spot the vehicle on the road within two meters of its actual location, which is incredibly good when it comes to the automotive scene.
These items, while they may not sound like anything exactly riveting, give the CT6 the ability to cut the driver out of the equation on certain situations. The other system that the CT6 has over other semi-autonomous vehicles is its Driver Attention System.
The latter consists of a light bar that changes color on the steering wheel, a driver attention camera that’s located at the top of the steering column, sensors on the steering wheel, and infra-red emitters on the wheel. The camera and infra-red emitters track the driver’s head and eye movements to ensure that his or her face is facing straight ahead, focusing on the road.
Look away for five seconds – and when Cadillac says five seconds, the automaker means five seconds, we timed the thing and it was spot on at five seconds – and the green light bar on the steering wheel starts to flash. Escalation 1, as it’s called, is used to let drivers know that the system recognizes that they’re not paying attention and will turn off soon. Looking ahead or placing a hand on one of the steering wheel’s sensors lets the system know that you’re not watching a cat video on YouTube and all goes back to normal.
Fail to prove your level of alertness to the all-knowing machine and it goes into Escalation 2 where the light bar flashes red, the green steering wheel icon on the gauge cluster turns red, and an ear-piercing chime is emitted or the driver’s seat vibrates. Escalation 2 is the car’s way of letting the driver know that because of their negligence, Super Cruise will be giving control of the car back to the driver.
And when the car goes into its Escalation 2 mode, you’ll want to take control of the vehicle quickly, as the next step – Escalation 3 – is when all hell breaks loose. If the car is in Escalation 2 mode for 10 seconds and the driver doesn’t show the vehicle signs of life, like moving their head, touching the steering wheel, or shifting their eyes to the front of the vehicle, it enters into Escalation 3 where the light bar flashes red, the steering wheel icon turns red, the car emits a chime or vibrates the seat, and a voice prompt comes on to yell at the driver to show signs of life. In addition to the madness, the CT6 will bring itself to a screeching halt and OnStar is alerted.
It sounds kind of crazy. The car essentially goes from being fine and operating on its own to a doomsday setting in just 10 seconds. After the car comes to a halt and the paramedics have arrived on the scene to ensure that you’re alive, Super Cruise is no longer available until the car has been reset.
Cadillac, understandably, didn’t let us see what happened when the car reached Escalation 3. But they did gives us nearly 13 hours and 900 miles of seat time in the car, so I got to know Super Cruise on an intimate level.
Getting the system to take over couldn’t be easier. Drivers have to be on a proper highway with on- and off-ramps, Adaptive Cruise Control has to be on, Teen Driver can’t be on, the Forward Collision System has to be set to alert and brake, and the car’s sensors can’t be obstructed to ensure that the system will work properly. Once all of this is met, drivers have to put the vehicle in the center of the lane, at which point a gray steering wheel icon will appear on the gauge cluster. Once that pops up, all you have to do push the Super Cruise button on the steering wheel and the car is officially driving on its own.
Super Cruise, for the most part, works exceptionally well. The CT6 kept itself in the middle of the lane and a safe distance from the vehicle in front for the majority of the drive. Hands-free driving really is possible and while it’s a little unnerving at first to be right next to a semi-truck in the middle of a highway turn, the car didn’t even come close to crashing into anything beside it.
On my journey, there were times where I wouldn’t touch the steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal for roughly an hour and a half. And other journalists claimed they were easily doing runs of at least a few hours at a time. My runs came to a halt when the vehicle came into a construction zone, which the Midwest is plagued with. Cadillac doesn’t recommend using Super Cruise in a construction zone, and while the system does work relatively well, it darts around, as its systems can’t detect cones and has trouble on roads that don’t have well-defined lines.
A few other issues occurred on the drive, as well, though. When driving in the right lane, the Super Cruise system entered off-ramps that didn’t have any defined lines. After realizing that the vehicle was veering off of its track, it would jerk back to its original lane. The car did this repeatedly and not just to me, but with my driving partner, as well. It was downright frightening at first, but after the first few times, we anticipated the act and held onto the wheel to stop the car from veering into the lane.
The other issue only happened once, but it almost resulted in an accident. When driving in the right lane, a crossover cut the car off while attempting to merge onto the highway. The CT6’s host of sensors didn’t detect the vehicle, speeding along at 80 mph until the last second, when the car relied on its Automatic Emergency Braking system to barely miss rear-ending the vehicle.
Besides those two mishaps, the Super Cruise system worked flawlessly, helping us cover a lot of ground in a luxurious fashion. On the second day, which saw us go from Chicago to Memphis, I didn’t feel fatigued. While on paper, having a system that does the driving for you may not sound that relaxing, it really is. And while Cadillac may adamantly say that you need to be staring out of the front windshield at all times, Super Cruise allows you to relax, check your phone, or take a long, meaningful look at America’s countryside.
The Super Cruise system is only available on the CT6 sedan at the moment and is standard on the fully-loaded $85,290 variant of the vehicle. The system is also available as a $5,000 package on the Premium Luxury trim that costs $66,290. I’m usually on the side of technology is the devil and needs to be exorcised from vehicles, but if I made enough money, I would totally pay an extra $5,000 for the piece of tech. As an enthusiast, saying that out loud is equivalent of going to the pound to kick a puppy.
Should enthusiasts fear semi-autonomous vehicles? No, I don’t think so. After driving the CT6, drivers have the option of using the system or simply ignoring that it exists. For the moment, drivers can use self-driving technology when they’re bored of driving and turn it off when they decide that they want to be in control again.
What about non-enthusiasts, the people who simply see cars as a way to get from point A to point B? For those drivers, GM’s Super Cruise system will be a godsend. If you’re one of the poor saps that has to drive on the highway to get to work, letting Super Cruise complete the majority of your trip will definitely help. Even if it’s just a short blast on the highway, say 15 minutes or so, Super Cruise is still worth the extra bit of money.
It’s time to get on the semi-autonomous/autonomous bandwagon, because the cars are coming and they’re good.