Cadillac hopes to gain back some respect for its technical prowess with a new version of the Super Cruise self-driving technology later this year. It will automate the task of changing lanes: Just tap the turn signal and the car does the rest, which includes checking for an opening, turning on the blinker, shifting lanes, and turning off the blinker.
Super Cruise will be on three new Cadillacs arriving in the second half of 2020: the midsize 2021 Cadillac CT5 sedan, the compact CT5 sedan, and the larger-than-life 2021 Cadillac Escalade. Super Cruise is built atop an “all-new digital vehicle platform” with more electrical bandwidth and compute power.
Super Cruise was the industry’s best and most advanced self-driving technology when it debuted in 2017. The Super Cruise special sauce was the extra step Cadillac took of lidar-mapping every lane of every US and Canadian interstate, then putting that info in every Super Cruise-equipped vehicle. In-car cameras and radars can precisely correlate the car’s location to the lidar map data.
In addition to the lane change feature, Cadillac says these enhancements were made:
- Addition of richer map information to enable automated lane change and improved functionality through turns and highway interchanges
- Improved software for better steering and speed control
- Enhancements to make it easier and more intuitive for drivers to engage the system
Before that, Cadillac bumped up the number of lidar-mapped highway miles from 160,000 to 200,000. So that now includes more divided-lane, limited-access highways outside the formal US Interstate system (47,000 miles) and Trans-Canada Highway (5,000 miles).
According to Super Cruise chief engineer Mario Maiorana:
This is our most extensive update we’ve made to Super Cruise since its debut. We have made a number of improvements to make Super Cruise more intuitive, better performing and more accessible for our customers. In addition to the automated lane change functionality, we’ve made improvements to the user interface and hands-free driving dynamics.
… [Changes] included improving rear-facing sensors and advanced software algorithms so that the system can confidently track vehicles approaching from the rear. As a result of these improvements, we are able to ensure that Super Cruise will hold in its current lane and only change [lanes] when a sufficient gap exists.
Because of significant changes to the underlying electronics platform, retrofit upgrades aren’t possible, and it appears other Cadillacs won’t get the new Super Cruise until a mid-life refresh or an all-new model of the car.
How hard can changing lanes be? Not much if you pay attention. (But we’re Americans.) As drivers age, checking the blind spot and changing lanes safely is a significant issue. It’s also an issue with drivers their first 3-5 years of driving.
When I tested a Cadillac CT6 at the 2017 Super Cruise first drive, from New York City to Washington to Cleveland (Cadillac picked the route; they’re probably fans of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame), it was a revelation: 600 miles of almost-completely hands-off driving.
Here’s the trick: You don’t have to have your hands on the wheel, but a camera is tracking your face and eyes and they have to be looking ahead. If you look elsewhere for more than 5-10 seconds, you’re warned, warned again, and if you still don’t respond, the car slows, hazard lights come on, the car comes to a stop, and OnStar calls for help. It’s a lot more comfortable with your hands off the wheel than on.
Super Cruise 1.0 did a fabulous good job maintaining the car exactly in the center of the travel lane. If you wanted to change lanes, you did that yourself. The only less-than-comfortable moments were in curves with an 18-wheeler alongside. If the trucker’s incautious arc through the turn brought it closer to the lane marking between the two of us, a prudent driver would respond to the trucker by moving a foot or two off-center to give a little space. Just in case. The occasional closeness-in-curves didn’t bother GM’s head of engineering sitting to me, but I suspect that would not have been the case with my wife in the passenger seat.
Since the debut of Super Cruise, several automakers such as Tesla and BMW have debuted auto lane-change. Some Tesla drivers have reported close calls during the actual lane change; I never experienced that in a couple of weeks driving two similarly equipped BMWs. But only Cadillac uses lidar-mapped data to help position the car on the road. (Note: The data in the car is lidar-mapped but Cadillacs don’t currently have lidar. They use GPS and other non-lidar sensors such as cameras for an accurate position fix.)
Cadillac could use more good technology. It has been through leadership changes, the end of its experiment putting the headquarters in Manhattan’s funky SoHo district, and suffered a 1 percent drop in sales in 2019. Meanwhile, competitor Lincoln jumped 8 percent, and international competitors mostly gained sales: Audi and Lexus, flat; Mercedes-Benz, up 1 percent; Jaguar, up 2 percent; Land Rover, up 3 percent; BMW, up 4 percent; Volvo, up 10 percent; Tesla, up 35 percent; Genesis, up 106 percent. Only Infiniti was a big loser, down 21 percent. Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus each outsell Cadillac by about 2-1.
It will be interesting to see how many trim lines (model variants) get the new SuperCruise. When I test drove the CT6 in 2017, Super Cruise was standard only on the top-of-the-line CT6 Platinum ($84,790 base price). On the other CT6 models, it was part of a $5,000 Premium Package.
SuperCruise is effectively Level 2-Plus automation, where Level 2 combines adaptive cruise control with lane-centering assist but the driver has to keep hands lightly on the wheel. Cadillac goes beyond by offering hands-off driving and lane changes initiated by the driver. A Level 3 car wouldn’t require constant eyes on the road and it could automatically change lanes and deal with cars merging onto the highway.
Things may be looking up. Cadillac has new leadership (again). Cadillac is refreshing its lineup. It has enhanced – fixed, to be more precise – its star-crossed CUE infotainment system. We’re huge fans of the vibrating safety-alert seats with tactile feedback rather than raucous audible alerts. It was one of the first with a rearview mirror that flips between an optical mirror and a wide-angle video view. It is offering comfortable and sporting versions where Lincoln is concentrating on luxury and design. Both are reasonable choices and for any US brand, it’s tough today to dethrone any of the European automakers if you go head-to-head on sports packages.
It has long been our belief that if something ails Cadillac, it isn’t their engineers. The latest Super Cruise gives Cadillac and GM a chance to polish off the slogan, “The Standard of the World.” We’ll see in a couple of months how Cadillac has improved.
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