Tech’splaining: Cadillac Super Cruise

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Based on Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standards regarding automated driving systems (ADS), Cadillac’s Super Cruise is classified as Level 2. In fact, all the advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) consumers are most familiar with – Infiniti/Nissan ProPilot Assist, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, Tesla Autopilot, and Volvo IntelliSafe Autopilot – are considered Level 2 semi-autonomous. Which means, on the SAE scale of 0 to 5, they’re only approaching the halfway mark to full autonomy.

But halfway does offer a fair amount of automation, which has led to a common (and dangerous) misconception that these systems will drive the vehicle for you.

Hint: They don’t.

And, as we’ve come to learn, even if grouped within the same level, these guidelines reflect only a minimum when it comes to ADAS implementation, which leads to these semi-autonomous systems varying in capability and execution from automaker to automaker.

With that, let’s take a closer look into Cadillac’s Super Cruise.

How Does Cadillac Super Cruise Work?

Introduced in 2017, Super Cruise is a feature that utilizes existing driver-assistance systems in conjunction with additional cameras and GPS data to offer what is considered the industry’s first true hands-free highway driving experience. Super Cruise achieves this thanks to the application of two technologies: real-time Light Detection and Ranging (lidar) map data and a driver attention monitoring system.

Vision is the single most important component of driving. We can program a vehicle to start its engine, accelerate, brake, change lanes, and come to a complete stop, but how will it know when, where, and how far? Just like a human driver, it needs to see.

Precision Lidar GPS Mapping

Aerial View of Freeway Interchange
Cadillac uses a proprietary Lidar-scanned map database that maps 130,000 miles of roads down to an accuracy level of 2 inches. (Unsplash)

In addition to the onboard cameras and sensors that dictate established ADAS like advanced cruise control (for following distance) and lane-keeping assist (for precision), Super Cruise also employs a lidar-scanned map database. If Google Maps’ street view comes to mind, you’re not far off as Cadillac’s proprietary system includes precise charting of every limited-access highway in the U.S. and Canada.

To be clear, a limited-access highway (also referred to as a controlled-access highway) is a roadway designed for unhindered high-speed vehicular travel with defined on- and off-ramps. Interstate freeways, state highways, and local expressways are limited-access thoroughfares; a business route or private road is not.

And Super Cruise engineers mapped more than 130,000 miles of roadway within 2 inches of detail. According to Cadillac, this provides four to eight times more clarity than traditional GPS data. Now the vehicle can “see” its surrounding environment, but being only Level-2 autonomous, it cannot perform all the dynamic driving tasks. A human driver still must be behind the wheel and ready to take control at any time.

So, how does Super Cruise know you haven’t taken a super snooze at the wheel? It watches the interior environment, too.

Driver Attention System

Cadillac Super Cruise infrared light camera
This is the camera that Cadillac Super Cruise uses to make sure the driver is awake. It does not, however, assess actual attentiveness. (Cadillac)

Located at the top of the steering wheel is an infrared light camera. Using specially developed software, the system essentially tracks a driver’s head movement and can detect whether his or her eyes are open – even through sunglasses. It’s worth noting, however, that the camera is a motion detector only and not a recording device. No photos, video, or audio are being captured or stored, says Cadillac.

An illuminated status bar is embedded into the upper portion of the steering wheel. When Super Cruise is activated, this system will inform the driver as to how the system is operating through a color-coded series of alerts:

  • Solid green light bar, green Super Cruise icon – The system is active and automatically driving the vehicle.
  • Flashing green light, green icon – Super Cruise is active but detects you may not be entirely attentive. This is considered the first alert.
  • Pulsing blue light, blue icon – Super Cruise is active but senses the driver is manipulating the steering. Automatic driving must then be re-engaged.
  • Flashing red light, red icon – Super Cruise will deactivate as current conditions no longer meet the requirements for safe operation. The driver must take control of the wheel. This is the second alert.
  • Flashing red light, red icon, audible warning – If a driver does not take control of the vehicle following a voice prompt instructing them to do so, the vehicle will gradually decelerate, hazard warning lights will flash, and OnStar Emergency Services will be contacted. This is the third and final alert.

Capable…In a Straight Line

Steering Wheel Green Light Cadillac Super Cruise
Cadillac Super Cruise allows for hands-free driving but only in ideal driving conditions. (Cadillac)

On a clear day, you can see forever – and so can Super Cruise. An all-highway drive will feel like a breeze as you won’t be making constant inputs to the steering wheel or with the pedals. But certain conditions do have to be met:

  • Adaptive cruise control and the forward collision systems must be activated
  • Lane markings must be visible
  • Cameras and sensors must be unobstructed
  • Teen Driver feature must be turned off
  • Most important, the driver must be attentive

Inclement weather, for example, will dampen Super Cruise use. Snow and even wind-blown leaves can cover the sensors while heavy fog reduces overall visibility. Construction zones also can cause confusion as they obscure markings and create new traffic patterns.

The reality is that Super Cruise was designed to maintain active driving within the vehicle’s present lane. In its current state, the system cannot enter or exit highways, turn into corners, change lanes, or detect driver attentiveness. The system can tell that your eyes are open, but not whether you’re actually paying attention. A driver must remain alert and respond quickly to situations beyond Super Cruise’s capabilities, such as steering around potholes, for instance.

What Models Offer Super Cruise?

White 2019 Cadillac CT6 Platinum
Super Cruise debuted on the 2018 Cadillac CT6, which remains the only model to offer the semi-autonomous feature. But starting in 2020, Super Cruise will expand to the entire Cadillac lineup. (Cadillac)

Available since fall 2017, Super Cruise is currently only offered on Cadillac’s full-size premium sedan, the CT6. For the 2019 model year, Super Cruise is an optional package for Sport trims and standard equipment on Platinum vehicles.

Beginning in 2020, however, Super Cruise will be available across the entire Cadillac lineup. After that, the rest of the General Motors family of models will be able to call semi-autonomous dibs.

Although not completely hands-free, Level 2 autonomy can make long commutes, stop-and-go traffic, and free-spirited road trips a little more pleasant. And in real-world use, Cadillac Super Cruise has been praised for its ease of use and driving aptitude. Goes to show that even halfway-there technology can stay the course toward full autonomy.

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