Here’s the ultimate test of how much you trust computers: Will you let them drive your car? With you in it?
Pras Subramanian and I did. In the video above, you’ll see us testing out General Motors’ new Supercruise technology, which may be the most advanced self-driving capability you can buy in a car today. Available for now on the Cadillac CT6 sedan, Supercruise both steers the car and manages the speed, based on surrounding traffic. You can literally take your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals, while the car motors along. It’s either awesome or terrifying, depending on your sense of adventure.
You can’t nap while Supercruise chauffeurs you along, alas. The system monitors your face, using a camera mounted atop the steering wheel, to make sure you’re paying attention. If it senses you’re not, an alert will sound, prompting the driver to take control of the car. If the driver doesn’t, the alerts escalate, with Supercruise ultimately guiding the car to a controlled stop if the driver is drunk and passed out, or otherwise unresponsive.
As you can see in the video, Supercruise shut me down after I reclined the driver’s seat, put my hands behind my head and took a selfie of myself driving hands-free. Exactly which of those actions locked me out of Supercruise, we aren’t sure. Maybe it was a combination of all three.
The system has numerous safeguards. It only works on certain limited-access highways, the kind with on and off ramps. It relies on sensors able to read lane markings, so it won’t work if those markings are obscured by snow, salt or anything else. Same if the sensors are dirty or blocked.
After Pras took over the driving—or whatever you call it, when Supercruise is in control—we hit busy traffic on I-87 in the Bronx, north of Manhattan. Cars cut in and out, the prevailing speed went up and down by 30 miles per hour or so, and fellow drivers gave each other the finger. Supercruise handled it all, as Pras squirmed and resisted the urge to grab the wheel.
Then came a gut-check moment. A car off our right front bumper began edging into our lane—and Supercruise didn’t seem to notice. With the car uncomfortably close, Pras hit the brake and veered out of the way, which is exactly what I would have done. Whether Supercruise would have done the same, we have no idea. And unfortunately, our GoPro batteries had died by then, so we can’t go to the videotape.
Supercruise is known as “Level 2” autonomy (out of six levels, ranging from 0 to 5), which is defined as piloting the car as long as the driver is paying attention and able to retake control. The next step up, Level 3, doesn’t require the driver to pay attention (and isn’t available yet).
Tesla’s Autopilot system beat Supercruise to market by a couple of years, but flaws in that system also contributed to a gruesome Florida crash in 2016 in which the driver was decapitated after his car slid under a tractor-trailer at 74 miles per hour. The Tesla’s sensors failed to detect the truck turning in front of it, and the driver did nothing to intervene, suggesting he was asleep or incapacitated. Supercruise wouldn’t have worked on that road, because it wasn’t a limited-access highway. And Tesla has since modified Autopilot.
Other automakers, including Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volvo, offer Level 2 systems similar to Supercruise, but the Cadillac system has generally earned the best reviews, so far. Meanwhile, self-driving features such as advanced cruise control, which speeds and slows the car automatically, based on surrounding traffic, are increasingly standard on mainstream rides such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Self-driving cars are coming. The only question is what you and I will allow them to do.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman