There aren’t any fully self-driving cars available to buy today, but there are plenty of vehicles with semi-autonomous features. One of the better ones is the 2018 Cadillac CT6 with Super Cruise, an advanced driver-assist system that GM claims rivals Tesla’s Autopilot. When driving on divided highways, Super Cruise allows Cadillac owners to take their hands off the steering wheel and their feet off the pedals. It’s about as close to self-driving as it gets with a production vehicle today.
Last week, I made the annual trip up to Connecticut to spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. But instead of taking our boring 2013 Subaru Impreza, Cadillac loaned me one of its new sedans. Assuming the car would impress my Cadillac-owning in-laws, I leapt at the chance to show off the flashy new car. At last I could ingratiate myself with my wife’s famously prickly grandfather and uncle, two stoic Midwestern-types who view new technology with the same skepticism they direct toward the mainstream media. Even they would see the advantage of a car that, for all practical purposes, could drive itself on the highway.
Boy was I wrong. After circling the car and prodding its haunches like it was a prize steer, Tab, my wife’s uncle, sniffed at Cadillac’s choice of using plastic plating rather than steel. His father (my wife’s grandfather) Bob, was even more flip in his first reaction: standing right next to the car in the driveway, he exclaimed loudly, “Where’s the Cadillac?”
Still, both were excited to take a ride. And when I explained that the car’s Super Cruise feature would be the one driving the car, not me, their curiosity magnified. (Perhaps because they didn’t hold my driving skills in particular high regard, but I digress.)
But first, how does Super Cruise work? With a combination of cameras, sensors, and mapping data, the feature allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel during highway driving. But drivers need to keep their eyes on the road, and an infrared camera mounted on the steering column keeps track of where you’re looking to make sure you’re doing just that. Look away for too long, then a light bar in the steering wheel blinks red and your seat vibrates to remind you to pay attention.
Semi-autonomous systems like Autopilot and Super Cruise are often dismissed as glorified versions of cruise control, but they’re also a canary in the coal mine when it comes to full autonomy. (A New York Times columnist, who recently used his hands-free time behind the wheel of the CT6 to write this article, calls it “a glimpse of the future.”) As more and more cars are sold with these advanced features, drivers get more experience with letting go of the wheel and trusting their cars to handle some of the driving. And soon enough, they may feel comfortable enough to relinquish all control, which is where a lot of car and tech companies think we’re headed.
But for now, most of these systems are only available to those willing to pay thousands of dollars for them, limiting their mass-market appeal. A Tesla Model S with “Enhanced Autopilot” can cost at least $73,000, while a CT6 with Super Cruise retails for $71,300. These are not cheap cars, and will only be affordable to a certain segment of the population.
Which was why I was interested to see how my middle class in-laws — men with single-syllable names who scoff at overprivileged young people — who would react to this technology. Not because they couldn’t afford it themselves (they do alright) but because they would probably never even consider paying $5,000 for an option that lets the car drive itself. Why would you trust a computer over the human brain?
Both my wife’s grandfather and uncle own Cadillac Coupe de Villes, the former a 2002, the latter a 1998. They’ve driven them all over the country, and say they love the reliability, the spaciousness, and the durability. While we were driving down I-95, they were more interested in commenting on the softness of the seats and the material that rings the screen in the center console, than on how well the car was doing accelerating and decelerating in stop-and-go traffic. (My take: it did great.)
Neither seemed ready to admit they were ready to relinquish control to the car, which didn’t come as a total shock. Study after study reveals that consumers don’t want self-driving cars. A recent survey by MIT asked nearly 3,000 people about their interest in self-driving cars. Nearly half — 48 percent — said they would never purchase a car that completely drives itself. Respondents said they're uncomfortable with the loss of control and don't trust the technology. They also don't feel self-driving cars are safe.
Young people are more comfortable with autonomous vehicles than older people — but they're becoming more, not less, skeptical about the technology. Last year's MIT study found 40 percent of people age 25-34 said they would be comfortable with fully autonomous vehicles. This year, only 20 percent of people 25-34 said the same.
That probably explains why companies like Intel are turning to celebrities like LeBron James to help sell the idea that self-driving cars are safe and, more importantly, cool. But the myth of America is carefully entwined with the concept of driving. The car equals freedom. And while turning over the duties driving to a robot might appear to free us to do things in the car we weren’t able to previously, for many that level of automation is anathema to traditional American values like individual liberty.
“Even Luke Skywalker had to go manual,” Tab quipped after our ride was over. Indeed, Luke didn’t use Super Cruise when he blew up the Death Star. He tapped into the universe’s ultimate autonomous system: the Force.