I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a brand new 2018 Cadillac CT6, the most expensive (about $83,000 maxed out) and futuristic car the company makes, and one I frankly don’t deserve to be driving. It’s an absolute gem: It has big cushy seats, a gigantic touchscreen infotainment system, and a crazy rear-view camera mirror that flips between an actual mirror and an HD camera.
But none of that really matters, because I’m here to test the new, highly anticipated self-driving feature, Super Cruise, which lets the car effectively take control on most major highways in the continental U.S. and Canada. It’s one of the most advanced upgrades available in any car right now, and Cadillac claims it’s “the world’s first true hands-free driving system for the freeway.”
Tesla, eat your heart out.
This is a huge deal for one main reason: For all the hype around Tesla’s Autopilot feature, it’s not truly self-driving because it requires your hands to be on the wheel at all times. Cadillac’s newer Super Cruise lets you remove your hands from the wheel and lift your feet from the pedals — so you can coast along on the highway without doing any real work.
Leaving the city
I start my journey at the Cadillac House, the company’s gallery and cafe in the heart of Manhattan. There’s a major celebration and sendoff, and we’re on our way. We drive out of the city and get on the I-95 toward Washington, D.C. It’s about a four-hour drive.
As soon as I jump on the highway, I accelerate about 70 miles-per-hour and enter standard cruise control. A small indicator on the instrument panel shows the car is ready to engage self-driving mode. I push a button on the steering wheel to begin, initiating Super Cruise mode.
A green light bar at the top of my steering wheel shows that Super Cruise is on. There are no spontaneous jolts, no weird speed changes or anything like that. The car remains perfectly steady and aligned in the center of the lane. It uses a combination of cameras, radar sensors, and GPS to find what Cadillac calls the “Blue Line,” or an imaginary line created by company engineers who mapped more than 160,000 miles with LIDAR sensors to find the dead center of the road. The car finds the line, like a train on a track.
I have to admit: I was a little worried about letting the car take over at first. I kept my hands near the wheel and my eyes locked on the road. After about ten minutes, I finally started to trust the car’s judgement. It soon became clear that it could easily drive itself in light traffic, braking when necessary and maintaining a steady speed.
Then we hit a bottleneck. There was a standstill traffic outside of Baltimore, and things could have easily gone awry, but this is where Super Cruise really shined. The vehicle came to a complete stop to avoid crashing into traffic, then accelerated when cars started moving again. It was impressive as hell, and something that sets the 2018 Cadillac CT6 apart from all competitors.
Other systems — such as Tesla Autopilot — will not stay engaged in self-driving mode if the car is required to come to a complete stop for more than a few seconds, and it also requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. Not the 2018 Cadillac CT6. It can come to a full resting stop for up to three minutes and maintain a safe distance within traffic. It maintains control of the wheel and pedals without issue. It’s awesome. Watching the car drive itself in standstill highway traffic instilled in me a huge level of trust.
Is this really a self-driving car?
There’s an important distinction to make about the Cadillac CT6’s self-driving capabilities. On a spectrum created by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) that ranges from 1 to 5, with the higher numbers meaning more autonomy, this is a Level 3 system (one of the first) — meaning it’s conditionally automated.
According to the SAE guidelines, which were recently adopted the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to create federal guidelines, it means that the car will drive itself under the expectation that the driver will respond to any request to intervene.
In this case, Super Cruise uses a tiny camera at the front of your steering wheel to track your eye and head movement in order to make sure that you’re paying attention to the road. If you look away for too long (about 5 seconds), the LED light in the steering wheel starts flashing and brings up increasing levels of warnings. If the driver doesn’t respond to the alerts, the car will come to a complete stop and turns on the hazard lights.
Arriving in Washington DC safely
I eventually peel off off the highway and head into Washington D.C. To turn Super Cruise off, I simply hit the button on the steering wheel again. The green light at the top of the wheel turns off, and I take control of the car.
Again, there aren’t any weird accelerations or jolts. I drive to the hotel from the highway exit, which takes about 30 minutes. I’ve honestly done very little driving until this point. It helps that I was never caught in rush hour.
Still, the ride was smooth as hell, and wasn’t nearly as awful as I expected. As someone who used to travel seven hours to college from Illinois to Missouri, highway drives are something I’ve learned to hate. Even with basic cruise control, they’re exhausting.
The 2018 Cadillac CT6 has the potential to make long-distance drives way more manageable. The interior is gigantic, the infotainment system is fun to mess around with, and perhaps most importantly. you don’t actually have to control the car. As long as you remain on major highways in the U.S. and Canada, the CT6 is like having a personal chauffeur built into your car — at least, to a certain extent.
You can’t sit back and watch a movie while your car’s in control, because of the eye-tracking technology that makes sure you’re paying attention to the road. But it’s obvious after riding in the new Cadillac CT6 that full autonomy is super close to becoming a reality. I barely controlled any of the car’s functions while it was on the highway. It literally handled the worst parts of a four-hour drive, and made the entire trip a breeze.
I was completely skeptical about the CT6 when I first learned anything about it. I couldn’t imagine being impressed by what looked like a four-door family car and sounded like failed attempt to make an fully autonomous vehicle — but I was wrong.
The 2018 Cadillac CT6 is truly a technological leap step forward in the long march to full autonomy. It represents a major shift in the way we will interact with vehicles, how we control them, and how computers will begin to manage every component of a car. The CT6 is the first car to manage the wheel, pedals, and even the driver’s attention when in self-driving mode.
The CT6 had no problem bringing me from New York to Washington, D.C., in Super Cruise mode practically all by itself. It makes me hopeful for a future where I’ll never need to touch a steering wheel again.