I Wrote This in a SuperCruise-Equipped Cadillac CT6 That Is Driving Itself: UPDATED
Cadillac is using a coast-to-coast drive to prove that driving in traffic sucks—but that being driven in traffic, by your car, ain’t so bad.
I'm writing this in the middle of a two-day, 1,200-mile journey from Memphis to Santa Fe in the SuperCruise-equipped Cadillac CT6. SuperCruise is Cadillac's semi-autonomous highway-driving technology. It's meant to be used hands-free and only operates on closed highways—that is, a divided highway with no intersections that requires on- and off-ramps for entering and exiting. Since the car also runs a 4G LTE connection, I'm going to post some random thoughts from the road ... from the passenger seat, of course.
MEMPHIS TO DALLAS, 453 Miles
- The basics: SuperCruise is only available at 85 mph and below on closed highways that have been mapped by Cadillac partner Usher—Cadillac claims it has mapping for every qualifying piece of road in the U.S. and Canada, so there's no market where this won't work—and will only stay in one lane. There's no lane-changing capability, as with Tesla's and Mercedes's systems.
- Unlike other systems that measure driver engagement by contact with the steering wheel, the hands-free SuperCruise system uses a Driver Attention System that scans your face to make sure your eyes are both open and facing forward. If it senses you're not paying attention—looking out the window, or down at your phone—it will flash (but not beep) a warning on the long indicator integrated into the top of the steering wheel; if you don't bring your eyes back in line, it quickly beeps, flashes, and disengages, with an information screen saying that control of the car has been given back to the driver.
- The first several times we try to engage SuperCruise, it doesn't bite. To activate the system, you're supposed to click a small wheel-mounted button in response to a gray steering wheel icon that appears on the center stack to let you know SuperCruise is available. If you do it successfully, the gray icon turns green, and the steering wheel indicator displays a long green bar. However, the icon often flickers on and off, especially when you first get on the highway, and you end up chasing it a bit, like a whack-a-mole game.
- The first time SuperCruise engages, it quickly fires a warning and goes back to being unavailable. In the beginning it's a paranoid system, disengaging itself often and for unclear reasons. There's a real fear we’re going to drive 453 miles to Santa Fe in a regular CT6, on boring interstate highways the whole time. It wouldn’t be the worst thing, but I wouldn’t have signed up for it.
- Speaking of firsts: the first time it negotiates a serious curve, the car seems surprised by it, adding steering input late and kind of lurching into the curve. It doesn't happen again.
- The green bar on the steering wheel is a very smart choice. It's right in your line of sight, and acts as ambient information—"the system is functioning, all is good"—while you keep a general eye out for traffic conditions ahead of you.
- When the car is confused, because the lane markings disappear or a construction zone changes the rules of the road, it defaults to, essentially, washing its hands of the situation and handing control back to the driver. Which is a good instinct. But it doesn't always happen. We approached one lane closed off for construction with big orange cones; the car first drifted towards the cones, then jerked away, then beeped and washed its hands of the situation, handing control back to the driver so he could negotiate the construction zone. The system remained unavailable throughout that construction zone.
- The personal technology industry is going to love technology like SuperCruise, because It drops one more barrier to phone- or tablet use. The data plans alone will be millions of dollars in incremental revenue.
- I went from full-pucker anxiety the first time I removed my hands from the wheel at speed, to inherently trusting the system to the point of daydreaming out the window, in under five minutes.
- The car of the future will look like the living room of the present, with everyone feeding a steady stream of attention into a glowing screen.
- After an "escalation" incident—SuperCruise disengaging—there seems to be a cooling-off period during which the system won’t engage for a bit—a vehicular form of the silent treatment where you think about what you did. You know what you did.
- Is GM working to get this into cargo trucks? Cadillac’s system parameters—mapped closed highway (no intersections), single lane of travel only—seems custom-made for the long-haul driver.
- Answer to the above from a vehicle engineer: "Not that I'm aware of."
- A huge discarded tire sitting smack center on the hashed lane divider. The car either didn't pick it up, or sensed it perfectly; the end result is the car blowing by the rubber without incident or acknowledgment.
- This thing will do a 45-minute, one-hour stretch, no problem. In theory it will operate until you run out of gas or the proper type of highway.
- Keeping the phone in front of the steering wheel keeps your head in the right general orientation towards the DAS, which lets you neglect the road for somewhat longer than if you’re looking off to the side.
- Would the take rate be the same if all phone use inside a car was illegal and/or technologically disabled? Would broad implementation mean the hands-free laws would have to be rethought?
- You can’t just hit a button to switch from adaptive cruise control to SuperCruise—you have to hit all the qualifying steps first, like any activation: head forward, hands on the wheel, car centered in the lane. Perhaps some third action? Belief in SuperCruise?
- Big semi enters our lane sharply; system doesn’t see it until well into our lane, then beeps and brakes.
- Related: All these types of semi-autonomous systems have a hard time identifying stationary cars—vehicles in stopped traffic on the highway, for example—as "targets" to avoid. Coming over a crest at 70 mph, I pick up the stopped traffic ahead of me far before the system does. I even give the system an extra second or two to identify that we're hurtling towards stopped traffic, but have to initiate braking. However, it's very likely that even at that speed, the car could have made the stop before an impact.
- It seems random sometimes, when the system is available and when it isn’t. The steering wheel icon, indicating availability, appears and disappears with no apparent change in driving conditions.
- The fatigue reduction using this system is remarkable. After seven hours in the car, I got out in Dallas feeling like I had driven a few hours at the most.
DALLAS TO SANTA FE, 747 Miles
- Being naturally skeptical of autonomous-driving technology—well, not skeptical of the technological capabilities as much as I generally distrust the large corporations that own those technologies not to market them in a cynical and irresponsible manner—I'm surprised that I actually appreciate the fact that this is designed as a hands-off system. What hands-off is very good at is defining quickly and clearly which entity is in charge of the car: hands off, the car is in charge; hands-on, you're in charge. That negates the wrestling-of-the-wheel that can happen with some of the hands-on systems. Sometimes, it's unclear if you or that system is supposed to be making the decisions—sometimes, you want to do something the car doesn't want to do, or vice-versa.
- The first question I asked at the driver briefing yesterday was about the dealership training and educational experiences, but despite the fact that this doesn't pass the mother-in-law test—that is, can I hand my mother-in-law the keys to this car, briefly explain SuperCruise, and then trust that she'll figure it out on the road and nothing will go wrong—it comes very close. It's a pretty simple system, it works surprisingly well, and best of all, the second it gets confused it hands off back to the driver in a clearly communicated procedure.
- We're lucky enough to have Daryl Wilson, lead development engineer for SuperCruise, in the car with us today. Wilson sees, as do many others, the short-term future for this technology being in the ride-hailing space in densely populated urban environments—basically, autonomous Ubers in New York City and the like. Wilson says the power consumption necessary to run all the sensors and systems is so massive it precludes cost-effective full autonomy in consumer vehicles in the foreseeable future. I asked him how he was defining that timeframe, and Wilson said, "10 to 15 years, at least."
- Of course, while one of the long-term goals of autonomy is safer roads—a consumer benefit—an autonomous taxi provides no clear consumer benefits over a human-driven one ... except, of course, if you buy into that dystopian Silicon Valley idea that all human interaction is to be avoided like a case of the clap. No, the benefit of the short-term autonomy economy is simple efficiency and cost-savings: human beings are expensive and need inconvenient things like rest and pee breaks and water. Get rid of the humans, you can have an autonomous taxi running 24-7.
- As clever as these mostly camera-based systems are, in the middle of the country, where we're driving through now, they will be completely useless at the first sign of snow. The super-accurate LiDAR mapping can mitigate somewhat but not enough; meanwhile, in cities there are many more fixed reference points—road signs, buildings, etc.—than just lane markers, so snow might not be as much of an issue.
- As amazing as this system is in action—and I have frequently found myself amazed—it gets a bit squidgy when the lane markings disappear briefly. The car always tries to center itself in its lane using the markers as the most pertinent detail; when some markings disappear, the car can start swerving within the lane looking for its idea of center. It rarely feels dangerous, but it's also not confidence-inspiring.
- So, this is interesting: Daryl Wilson told me that the SuperCruise system does not recognize smaller impediments in the road, like traffic cones, delaminated rubber, barrels, etc. This is a purposeful decision—apparently, given current limitations, it's simply too problematic to confirm these sorts of smaller impediments—but one that did create a confusing situation in the real world, in which traffic barrels were used to gradually close off a lane due to construction, but the car continued to read the leftmost lane markings. That means that SuperCruise remained engaged, telling me, "Hey, I got this," even as I was getting the sense that we were going to drive directly into the barrels—which we were. It was the only time during about 900 miles driven (so far) that the system created a sort of mode confusion. However, Wilson mentioned that this sort of situation is addressed at the dealer level for new SuperCruise buyers so they understand the system's limitations.
- We had one situation where the system freaked out and locked itself out. I had just taken the wheel after a driver change, and the first time the SuperCruise icon appeared, I pressed the wheel-mounted button to engage it. The system freaked immediately—an "escalation"—despite no change in the road conditions, and failed to make itself available over the next 10 miles or more. Refreshing the key cycle—that is, turning the car off and then on again—solved the problem; Daryl's idea is that there was some sort of false-positive within the safety redundancies built into the system, and it defaulted safe. It was an easy fix, but he was still bummed. "Shouldn't have happened," he said.
- Well, the future is here. I still need to experience a more recent version of Tesla's Autopilot, but based on my experience with other hands-on-the-wheel semi-autonomous systems, I do think the Driver Alert System, which is essentially the key to the hands-off functionality, is the key differentiator. As stated before, I like the binary "the car is handling things / I am handling things" differentiation, I like the way the bar on the steering wheel lets you know the the system status—engaged (green), engaged but driver has taken control (blue), requiring attention (flashing green), disengaging (flashing red), or disengaged (no color)—as ambient information, which lets you pay attention to the road ahead.
- I also like the ease with which you can take over the system—to change lanes, for instance—and the transition between the two states is natural and mostly effortless (you have to overcome a certain amount of torque in the wheel, to let the system know you're serious, in order to retake control of the wheel).
- The major downside is the center stack: the way in which the information is displayed is somewhat small and jumbled. In fact, it makes me wonder if the CT6's digital gauge cluster should have a screen option dedicated for SuperCruise use—why would I need to see RPMs or oil temp if I'm in a mostly-autonomous mode?—that shows only the most pertinent SuperCruise information, like system status, vehicle speed, road map, etc.
- At a certain point, wide adoption of even semi-autonomous systems could change the layout of a car to account for the in-the-driver's-seat-but-not-driving scenario.One of the benefits of putting over one thousand miles on the system in short order is that it really makes you consider how much a car is designed around a driver—which is to say, designed around the act of driving. You realize very quickly how uncomfortable a place the footwell is if your feet aren't on the pedals, and the placement of the steering wheel means you wind up steepling your hands by your chin, or laying them flat on your thighs.
- Or you hold your phone down kind of low and sneak a news story in fits and starts, despite the literal thousands of times you have referred to someone on their phone while behind the wheel as a "fucking idiot"—as in, "Jesus Christ, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT FUCKING IDIOT?"—and the almost ecstatic satisfaction that comes with shutting off your phone before a long drive. Good god, what has this technology made of me?