Mark Phelan: Cadillac reinvents driving with system that steers car for long distances

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

November 13, 2017

The J. Geils Band is playing "Detroit Breakdown" on the Bose audio, but itís all good. Iíve got Cadillacís Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system under the hood, and 1,100 miles of highway ahead of me between the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes.

Boogie on, self-driving Caddy.

This is my second experience with the Super Cruise, but the earlier drive was much shorter.

Before the engineers and lawyers jump all over me: "Self-driving" is a slight overstatement, but itís hard not to be excited by Super Cruiseís performance and potential.

The 2018 Cadillac CT6 doesnít quite drive itself, but it comes closer than you might imagine, and I enjoyed the results more than I could have expected. Over the course of 2,300 miles in a recent drive from Detroit to New Orleans and back, Super Cruise showed that itís a major step toward fully autonomous vehicles that require no human intervention. Its radars, cameras and electronically controlled brakes, acceleration and steering allowed the 2018 Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan to virtually drive itself for nearly 90 percent of the trip.

This is not a dream "someday, cars will drive themselves" feature. Super Cruise is available now. Itís standard on the top of the line $84,295 CT6 Platinum and a $5,000 option on the $65,295 CT6 Premium Luxury.

Expect Cadillac to add Super Cruise to other vehicles quickly, and GM to roll the feature out across its three other brands.

Super Cruise works on restricted access highways in the U.S. and Canada. Essentially, it steers the car from the time you leave the entrance ramp until youíre ready to exit the highway.

Super Cruise accelerates and brakes to keep pace with other vehicles or hold any speed you set up to 85 mph. The driver has to touch the steering wheel briefly to change lanes, and take full control in some construction zones and on surface roads with traffic, stop lights and other things. A face-recognition system watches to makes sure youíre not asleep, slumped over or completely ignoring the road.

GM developed effective driver alerts for Super Cruise. The flashing red light on the steering wheel and vibrating driver seat got my attention quickly whenever I looked away from the road too long.

I merged onto Interstate 75 south of Detroit and set the cruising speed. A green steering wheel appeared in the instrument panel and I engaged Super Cruise. The car steered itself about 60 miles, until I reached construction zones that did not match the systemís digital map of Toledo.

If youíve ever suspected I-75 in Ohio is one big construction zone, interrupted by the occasional rest area or Panera Bread, Super Cruise wonít do anything to change your mind. The Buckeye stateís perpetual construction was responsible for nearly half my total miles without Super Cruise.

The system let me drive farther without fatigue, increasing my distance covered and my fuel economy. I enjoyed the music on my iPhone more, noticing instruments and arrangements for the first time.

Super Cruise isnít perfect. Low-angle sunlight in the early morning and late afternoon can blind its cameras, forcing the driver to take over. The carís pedestrian detection also shut the cruise off and triggered all the alerts several times when there was no one in front of me.

The CT6 is the most nearly autonomous car you can buy today, but it will have to fight to keep that status. The technology is evolving fast. The next edition of the Mercedes S-class sedan will add the ability to autonomously change lanes to pass slower cars. Tesla promises fully autonomous driving, but has missed several target dates.

The big difference between Super Cruise and Teslaís current autopilot system are that Tesla drivers are supposed to have a hand on the steering wheel at all times. I covered more than 100 miles without touching the CT6ís wheel on several occasions. At other times, I might only touch the wheel for a moment, when poor lane markings confused Super Cruiseís electronic cameras or to navigate a complex highway interchange.

I got used to it fast, and Iíll miss Super Cruise on my next road trip.