Self-driving cars just got meaningfully closer to reality.
How much closer? I touched the steering wheel of a 2021 Cadillac Escalade just three times in 280 miles from when I entered I-96 in Detroit to exiting I-94 in Hammond, Ind. I touched the wheel four times driving the same route home; the fourth was to avoid a semi drifting into my lane on a curve in a snowy Chicago rush hour.
Regardless of what you’re heard, General Motors’ Super Cruise is the only hands-free self-driving system you can buy. Ignore the death cult of Tesla drivers posting videos of themselves napping behind the wheel at 70 mph. Tesla’s misleadingly named Auto Pilot “is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time,” in the electric car specialist’s own words.
Super Cruise — enhanced for 2021 with the ability to follow highway interchanges and execute hands-free lane changes — IS hands-free driving, complete with safety systems like eyeball tracking to make sure the driver isn’t napping, texting or slumped over the wheel after a stroke.
New Super Cruise features for 2021
—Lane change on demand
—Ability to navigate interchanges between highways
—More detailed map data
—Works on more miles of road
—More natural brake/accelerator feel
—Easier to activate
—Longer range rear radar
—Recognizes cones, etc., and notifies driver of construction zones
Happy customers, devoted drivers
I tested the upgrades on a long highway drive recently. The 2021 Cadillac Escalade is the first vehicle to offer enhanced Super Cruise. A more basic version — unable to change lanes or merge from one highway to another — debuted in 2017 on Cadillac’s sadly departed CT6 luxury sedan.
The enhanced version will be available in Cadillac’s CT4 and CT5 sport sedans later this year and the brand’s Lyriq electric vehicle in 2022.
GM knows Super Cruise is a winner. It plans to offer the feature on 22 vehicles by the end of 2023, including all the automaker’s full-size pickups and SUVs, and the Chevrolet Bolt electric car and utility vehicles.
It’s hard to imagine an owner who’s used Super Cruise on a couple of long drives going back to a vehicle without it. I’m a dedicated road tripper, and the 3,000-odd miles I’ve logged with the original and 2021 enhanced versions made me a convert. I enjoy the ride more, go farther and consistently end the drive less fatigued.
GM’s research shows 85% of current owners want Super Cruise on their next vehicle, chief engineer Mario Maiorana said. You’d be lucky to get that kind of unanimity asking McDonald’s customers, “You want fries with that?”
GM says owners rack up 70,000 miles using Super Cruise a week, adding to 7 million driven so far.
A hands-free day behind the wheel
So what happened on the rare occasions when I touched the wheel?
An LED embedded in the top of the steering wheel switches from green to red when the driver needs to take over immediately.
That happens most frequently when the car hits a stretch of road that’s missing from or — doesn’t match — its millimeter-detailed map. On my drive, Super Cruise handed back over to me both times I passed downtown Kalamazoo on I-94, presumably because of recent construction. The map database updates quarterly. After three years, drivers will pay $25 a month for the updates, a reasonable amount given that keeping up to date requires LIDAR-equipped vehicles measuring every centimeter of limited-access road in the U.S. and Canada around the clock. There are currently more than 200,000 miles of Super Cruise-enabled roads.
The green light flashed when my eyes left the road too long searching for a satellite radio channel.
I returned to eyes-front, touched the wheel and Super Cruise carried on. If the driver doesn’t respond to attention alerts, the vehicle turns on emergency flashers, slows to a stop and notifies emergency responders. It stops in its lane because the map data doesn’t include information about where there’s a shoulder for emergency stops. The attention alert works even if the driver is wearing an N95 mask. It uses a rear-facing infrared camera mounted on the steering column for a clear view of the driver.
The lane in which I was merging from one highway to another was about to end.
I took over, merged and SC resumed control in a few moments. Super Cruise remained active on the ramps from one highway to another when the lane I was in continued.
Changing lanes in rush hour
If the driver taps the indicator stalk for a three-flash merge, the system measures space in the adjoining lane, speeding up or slowing to create space when needed. Smooth and assured, the system was a match for afternoon traffic on Chicago’s Dan Ryan expressway, lovingly called the “damned Ryan” by commuters.
The system changes lanes to the left or right. If a gap isn’t available, the maneuver is canceled until the driver tries again.
Super Cruise will read fast-closing traffic during lane changes, moving back into the original lane if necessary.
In addition to the map database and GPS that’s accurate to less than 2 meters to position the car in lanes, Super Cruise sensors include:
—Forward facing camera for lanes, vehicles, objects
—Grille-mounted long-range front radar
—Two short-range radars for lane changes and neighboring vehicles 360-degree cameras for redundant lane-sensing
—Four short-range rear radars for safety and lane-change on demand
Other improvements for 2021 include a driver-attention sensor and front camera that are less susceptible to being blinded when the sun is low in the sky, and smoother steering adjustments.
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