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Cadillac takes aim at Tesla’s Autopilot with ‘hands-free’ Super Cruise technology, available this fall

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The competition for the best semi-autonomous system heats up

Cadillac

Starting this fall, the new Cadillac CT6 sedan will be the first car from GM to include Super Cruise, the highly automated (and hotly anticipated) driving technology. With a combination of cameras, sensors, and mapping data, Super Cruise will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel during highway driving. Cadillac says Super Cruise represents “the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology” — a clear shot at Tesla and its semi-autonomous Autopilot system.

What Super Cruise won’t allow, though, is for the driver to get in the backseat and watch the car drive itself — as some Tesla drivers did before the software was updated to require the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel. The CT6 comes with a driver-facing camera attached to the top of the steering column using infrared light to track head position and determine whether the driver is paying attention. If the driver attention wanders, Super Cruise uses an escalating series of alerts to ensure the driver keeps his or her eyes on the road.

What sort of alerts are we talking about? A “steering wheel light bar,” “visual indicators in the instrument cluster,” audible alerts like chiming or beeping, and “tactile alerts in Cadillac’s Safety Alert Seat.” In other words, your Cadillac will start flashing, beeping, and vibrating until you put down your smartphone and keep your damn eyes on the road. (This will either save a lot of lives or prove to be incredibly annoying to drivers. Perhaps both.)

That said, if the driver remains unresponsive — or is incapacitated by a heart attack — then Super Cruise can actually bring the car to a controlled stop, while OnStar (GM’s driver assist system) contacts the authorities to send help, if need be. Tesla’s system acts similarly, as does Mercedes-Benz’s next-generation Drive Pilot system, which The Verge’s Jordan Golson got to try out earlier this year at CES (and declared better than Autopilot).

Cadillac CT6 event photos

Cadillac says its new sedans will be the first to use LIDAR mapping data, in addition to cameras, sensors, and GPS to guide its hands-free technology. This doesn’t mean that the new CT6 will come with one of those spinning Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets on the roof, like a self-driving Google or Uber car. The vehicle itself is not equipped with the laser sensor, but with a database created using a fleet of LIDAR-equipped vehicles, which Cadillac claims have mapped “every limited-access highway in the US and Canada.”

That means Cadillac can control where drivers can and can’t use the hands-free function. Super Cruise will be restricted to only “divided, limited-access highways — highways with defined ‘on-’ and ‘off-ramps,’” the company says. In other words, drivers can only use the feature on road trips or highway commutes, not in cities or residential areas. Like Autopilot, Cadillac’s mapping data can be updated over the air.

“While it is technically possible for the technology to drive hands-free on other kinds of streets and roads, we feel strongly that this targeted approach is the best to build consumer and regulatory confidence and enthusiasm for advanced mobility,” said Barry Walkup, chief engineer on Super Cruise, in a statement.

To be sure, Super Cruise isn’t fully autonomous driving — not even close. Cadillac argues that at best, it could be considered Level 2, if Level 1 is no automatic features, and Level 5 is no steering wheel, no pedals, and no brakes. “Super Cruise does complete dynamic driving tasks such as full acceleration, deceleration, and steering within its lane,” a spokesperson explained. “Level 3 systems encompass all aspects of the dynamic driving tasks.”

GM is pursuing fully autonomous technology. The company bought the startup Cruise Automation last year, and invested $500 million in ride-hailing company Lyft. It’s self-driving Chevy Bolts have also been spotted in San Francisco in recent months. The Super Cruise-equipped Cadillac will be highly automated, but a self-driving car it ain’t.

Super Cruise won’t come cheap. Car buyers can expect to shell out $2,500 for the standalone option on luxury (base price: $66,290) and platinum models ($85,290). Also on luxury models, Super Cruise requires buyers to purchase the $3,100 driver assist package. Like I said, not cheap. The 2018 CT6 looks outwardly the same as the 2017 model; the only noticeable difference is inside the car, where the steering wheel now includes the integrated light bar and the camera attached to the top of the steering column.

GM originally planned to introduce Super Cruise in 2016, but it was delayed a year due to safety concerns. “Our engineers have been testing and validating the technology for the past several years to make sure all of our systems are focused on providing the customer with one of the most intuitive and safe solutions in the industry,” a spokesperson said. “We were not driven by a deadline, we were driven to make the system customer-friendly and safe.”

To say the least, with the introduction of Super Cruise, Mercedes’ Drive Pilot, and Tesla’s continual updates to Autopilot, 2017 is shaping up to be the year when a lot of drivers are going to find out how advanced “hands-free” driving is about to get.