GM’s Super Cruise feels like it’s self-driving, but it’s not

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Earlier this month, I was changing lanes on the Bay Area freeways with a turn signal in a Cadillac Escalade on the latest version of Super Cruise.

I didn’t have to check my blind spot or accelerate quickly to get over it. The massive SUV did all of this for me when its cameras, radars, and sensor devices determined that it was safe to do so. As soon as I was centered on the new lane, I turned the display off, put my hands back on my lap, and the car drove me on.

Super Cruise is driver assistance technology that has been available in certain Cadillac models since 2017 and will be available for more GM vehicles in the future. By 2023, 22 vehicle types are to be equipped with the hands-free system.

Super Cruise and other aids such as Nissan’s ProPilot Assist and Tesla’s autopilot, which also automatically steer, brake and accelerate, complement your driving behavior and do not replace it. The names may convey a greater sense of autonomy, but all three are just assistance systems.

A survey by the online car purchase site Autolist.com in January found that 36 percent of 3,380 car buyers believe that self-driving features like Super Cruise make a car safer. Another 36 percent of those surveyed said they were doing the opposite. When using Super Cruise, I got a false sense of security. It felt like I was in a self-driving car when it slowed gently when someone turned me off, but technically I was still the driver.

Great cruising

GM’s system accelerates, brakes, keeps the car in lane and changes lanes as part of an improved, updated version available in the new Cadillac Escalade. An attention tracking system in the front seat, including infrared emitters and a camera on the steering wheel, monitors your gaze and head position so you can take your hands off the wheel. All surveillance is only used for the moment and no biometric data is saved or stored. Even if you wear sunglasses, the system knows whether you are texting or checking your music playlist.

In all ways, Super Cruise ensures that you are careful.

Super Cruise operates on more than 200,000 miles of freeway in the US and Canada. You may not be able to use the Super Cruise system on certain stretches of motorway with poor road markings or construction. A button on the steering wheel turns it on and a message appears on the screen if it is not available.

I experienced the glowing steering wheel with its different colors, which should make it easier to know if you are needed on the steering wheel or if the car has a handle. Green means you can let go. This only happens if you are on a freeway where GM has been collecting map data and you are in the lane with good visibility.

I triggered the red light bar, flashing warning, and alarm when I pulled out my phone and tried to film Super Cruise in action. The driver monitoring system determined that I was not paying attention and lost my Super Cruise privileges for the rest of the trip. I was excluded from automated driving and had to drive myself. Here is the system that escalates to red code within 30 seconds:

Thanks to my time off, I trusted the system even more next time in the vehicle. Super Cruise didn’t mess around. If I were not fully present for a few seconds too long, the system would notice. Attention surveillance wasn’t just security theater; it was crucial that the situation was safe enough.

But then I was lulled into a false sense of security again. Just because Super Cruise caught me looking at a phone screen instead of the road doesn’t mean I know everything that’s going on in the car or what will happen next. The system does not do the driving for you. If the car ahead suddenly swerves or roadkill blocks your lane, you should be ready to draw attention to yourself.

The competition

Other advanced driving systems also allow drivers to sit back and feel like they are in a self-driving car on main roads and highways. But like Super Cruise, these only offer a few automated driver assistance functions.

Tesla has had autopilot in its cars since 2016, but it wasn’t until late last year that the company released a beta version of its “fully self-driving” mode for its autopilot driver assistance system. Known as the FSD, it can drive a Tesla on its own on the freeway and main roads. It’s available in many more locations than Super Cruise, which has only been used for 7 million miles in total. Autopilot had covered 3 billion miles by April 2020.

Unlike Super Cruise, there is no eye monitoring or distraction detection. Instead, Tesla trusts the driver to pay attention. The new FSD isn’t even completely driverless, as the name suggests. You need to keep your eyes on the road as the car accelerates, brakes, turns and stops at stop signs and follows traffic signals. However, Tesla is less aggressive than Super Cruise and gradually warns drivers with visual and audio cues to help them regain control of the car.

I tried Nissan’s improved ProPilot Assist system in the 2021 Nissan Rogue SUV back in November. It’s more like autopilot in that you have to keep your hands on the wheel and it works on main roads and some major roads off the freeway. There’s no eye tracking like there is on the Cadillac, but there are sensors on the steering wheel that detect that your hands are always in contact.

The Nissan ProPilot Assist is ready to drive.

The Nissan ProPilot Assist is ready to drive.

Image: sasha lekach / mashable

Hands off the wheel in the Cadillac with Super Cruise.

Hands off the wheel in the Cadillac with Super Cruise.

Image: sasha lekach / mashable

Just like Super Cruise, Nissan driving assistance needs to be stepped up. You need to be 100 percent vigilant even when you feel like you are in a self-driving car. Automatic steering and driving can be turned off at any time if there is a confusing road marking or poorly maintained lines. Since the driver was less monitored than with Super Cruise, I kept looking around with my foot on the brake and my hands on the steering wheel and was ready to take control.

I’ve spent more time with ProPilot Assist than Super Cruise so I’ve seen how you can get used to the extra assistance and rely too much on it. When I’m on a main road near my house, I press the ProPilot Assist button and expect it to handle stop-and-go traffic in my place. Given the length of time I spent with Super Cruise, I would count on the car to change lanes every time.

Regardless of which of these driver assistance systems you use, it is not an autonomous vehicle, even if it feels like one at the moment. You have to take the bike eventually. I have to change lanes alone. Real fully automatic cars are not yet for sale.

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