What it does, what it doesn't do, and why it's important.
After the latest fatal accident involving a Tesla vehicle, we thought it would be a good time to talk about driver-assistance features, particularly semi-autonomous systems like Autopilot. Many people misunderstand the limitations of these systems, as evidenced by the litany of accidents. Despite popular belief, Tesla's Autopilot is not a dedicated "hands-free" system where drivers can remove their hands from the wheel. In fact, the only systems currently available that offer this ability are Super Cruise from General Motors and BMW's Extended Traffic Jam Assistant, which isn't as advanced.
Ford will soon introduce its similarly-named Blue Cruise system for the F-150 and Mustang Mach-E, but as of right now, Super Cruise is the gold standard for driver-assist features. To educate people on how Super Cruise works, we borrowed a 2021 Cadillac Escalade Sport for a week to test the technology ourselves. It's pretty cool in practice, but it's far from perfect.
Super Cruise is GM's name for a driving assistance feature that keeps a vehicle in its lane without driver intervention. Think of it as more of an advanced cruise control. Combined with the radar adaptive cruise control, drivers in Super Cruise-equipped vehicles can drive on the highway without using their hands or feet. Cadillac recently introduced Enhanced Super Cruise with the ability to change lanes automatically. Drivers only need to activate their turn signal, and the car will change lanes when it deems it safe to do so.
Activating Super Cruise is easy, just like turning on cruise control in an older vehicle with one additional step. Program the adaptive cruise control to the desired speed, wait for the steering wheel icon to appear in the gauge cluster, press the Super Cruise button on the steering wheel, and wait for the light to turn green. So long as the steering wheel light remains green, Super Cruise is active.
"Self-driving" vehicles are ranked by five levels of autonomy, or six if you include Level 0 with no driving assistance whatsoever. Level 1 includes vehicles with a single element of automation, such as adaptive cruise control or lane-keep assist. These cars handle one element of driving, but the driver needs to monitor all other aspects. Super Cruise exists in the Level 2 category, alongside Autopilot, Extended Traffic Jam Assistant, and Blue Cruise. Level 2 systems handle the steering and acceleration/deceleration but still require driving intervention.
No vehicles in the United States currently offer Level 3 autonomy, but Honda is the first to market with such a system in Japan with its Legend sedan. Level 3 vehicles can make informed decisions, such as passing a slower vehicle, but they too require driver involvement.
When most people envision a "self-driving car," they are thinking of Level 4 or Level 5. Level 4 mostly drives itself but requires a driver override in specific circumstances. Level 5 is the purest definition of autonomy, a vehicle without a steering wheel or pedal. No such vehicles are currently available to purchase.
Super Cruise functions using a bundle of cameras and sensors positioned around the vehicle. The system only activates on compatible highways where GM has recorded LiDAR map data by scanning the road. The highly detailed LiDAR data ensures that the system always knows where to be. To ensure the system is as safe as possible, GM also uses high-precision GPS and a Driver Attention System that uses a camera to ensure the driver is watching the road. If the car detects a driver is not paying attention, Super Cruise will deactivate, making it far harder to trick than Tesla's Autopilot.
GM initially mapped out over 130,000 miles of limited-access freeways, recently adding over 70,000 miles of divided highways in the US and Canada. A website lets owners plug in their ZIP code to find compatible roads nearby. GM continues to scan more roads to expand the system's coverage.
As previously mentioned, Super Cruise will only activate on compatible highways in the US and Canada. It can not be used to drive through a neighborhood or a rural backroad. Although the system lets drivers take their hands off the steering wheel, the system does not replace the driver completely. If it detects a driver falling asleep at the wheel or texting while driving, it will audibly warn them to take control. Since Super Cruise is only a Level 2 system, not Level 3, it can not think for itself by passing slower traffic or following a navigation route.
Living in Orlando, Florida, we were eager to take the Escalade on the infamous I4 highway to test Super Cruise. Anyone who's ever visited Disney World has likely experienced this road's sweeping turns, torn-up tarmac, and insane drivers. Unfortunately, many portions of I4 are currently under construction, meaning we received a "Super Cruise Unavailable No Road Information" warning. A Cadillac representative confirmed that recent major construction prevented the system from working on the section of I4, despite the company's online maps saying it was eligible.
We later tested Super Cruise on two Florida toll roads, 408 and 417. Super Cruise functioned near-flawlessly on both highways, keeping the car in its lane and changing lanes upon request. On only one occasion, a vehicle suddenly cut over into the lane ahead of us, causing Super Cruise to get nervous and ask for driver intervention. Overall, we'd say the system works brilliantly, and we'd trust it on a long trip.
Cadillac introduced Super Cruise on the CT6 sedan, though that model is no longer in production. The system is currently available on the 2021 Escalade as a $2,500 option. However, Cadillac forces customers to add it as part of a pricey $8,850 bundle with adaptive cruise control, magnetic ride control, and many unrelated features. This package is only available on the Premium Luxury trim and above, starting at $84,890.
Opting for Super Cruise only entitles owners to a three-year free trial, after which they will need to sign up for a $25 per month subscription. This may sound pricey, but remember that Tesla's Full Self-Driving feature, which currently does not exist, costs $10,000.
GM will soon introduce Super Cruise on several more affordable vehicles. The current list includes the Cadillac Lyriq, CT4, and CT5, Chevrolet Bolt, Chevrolet Bolt EUV, GMC Sierra, GMC Hummer EV Pickup, and GMC Hummer EV SUV. We don't know how much Super Cruise will cost on these upcoming models, but it will bring the technology down to a lower price bracket.