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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

We test Super Cruise, Cadillac’s new hands-free semi-autonomous tech

Naysayers, please be quiet. I have seen the future – well, a modest part of it, at least – and it isn’t actually all that scary. Cadillac’s Super Cruise is a clever autonomous amalgamation of map data and a driver-attention system, along with cameras and other sensors in the car. And the results are almost addictively impressive.

The American brand claims that it is the “first true hands-free driving technology for the highway”. To put it to the test, I am in Nevada, driving through beautifully barren interstate scenery, en route from Las Vegas to Echo Bay, an hour or so away, on the banks of Lake Mead.

The location’s name is more familiar than you may realise: legend has it that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar liked the area so much that he named his pioneering online auction company in truncated tribute.

That pioneering spirit is certainly shared by Super Cruise, which could equally have been a new moniker for the CT6, already equipped as it is for gobbling up vast distances in relaxed refinement, with or without any semi-autonomous smarts. Just throwing it out there, Cadillac – and I claim my 10 per cent of all future royalties.

Truth be known, I was having such fun the first time I drove a Tesla – a Model S P90D “Ludicrous” edition – that I didn’t have any intention of bringing my pulse back down to resting level by trying out the Autopilot function. The CT6 doesn’t have nearly as much cranium-displacing acceleration or, in every sense, ludicrous thrills at the ready as Elon Musk’s remarkable machines, however, which makes it much less of a wrench to relinquish human driving control.

And call me simple, but add a cool name and some fancy lights to something, and you have my attention. Super Cruise not only sounds like a slightly fancy Marvel character, but it also demonstrates when it is – and isn’t – operating via a series of three colours that light up the top section of the steering wheel when the feature is engaged. It certainly appeals to my base-level excitement.

While the technology is complex, the basic operation certainly is not. The button that activates Super Cruise is mounted on the steering wheel among the regular cruise control controls. When on a highway, you press it once and it should leap into action. The reality, heading north on Interstate 15, is that it takes a while to find a suitable spot to take hold, despite repeated attempts to deploy it.

Cadillac CT6 with Super Cruise. Adam Workman / The National
Cadillac CT6 with Super Cruise. Adam Workman / The National

When it does, though, the feeling is an automotive equivalent of weightlessness; the top fifth or so of the steering wheel glows green, to indicate Super Cruise is now controlling your car. Change lanes and it will turn blue until it “finds” the new carriageway; should the system reach a stretch of road that isn’t supported, that light flicks to a warning red, with a dash prompt to re-take manual control of the car.

When green indicates go, a small camera atop the steering column monitors the driver’s attention, and after a warning, if you continue to look away the light will switch to red should it detect you looking away from the road ahead for too long.

I test it by taking an extended close up gaze at my own face – definitely don’t try that yourself, the wind might change – and the warning system duly kicks in. Unlike rival systems, though, you can take your hands off the wheel for infinite amounts of time, so long as you’re looking ahead and the roads co-operate.

Such is the relaxing nature of Super Cruise in operation that I actually feel myself getting mildly irritated when it does experience sections of highway that require my hands on the wheel. And that isn’t a sentence I thought I would ever type. When it becomes available in the UAE, it will certainly take a few modicums of stress out of the Abu Dhabi-to-Dubai slog. It dispatches sweeping highway curves as if they were simply straight roads.

Elsewhere, the 2018 CT6 remains as confident and comfortable as ever, something that is brought into sharp focus as I glide through the rugged Nevada wilds. Massage seats; an excellent infotainment system with CarPlay and Android Auto (although answers on a postcard to why the maximum stereo volume goes up to 63); a slot to ensure that charging wires aren’t squashed but can be kept largely out of view while attached to the central storage console’s USB connections.

There is even an option, with the addition of an SD card, to video your driving via the external camera system, although local laws would seem to prohibit that in the UAE. All that said, Super Cruise remains by far the CT6’s most exciting facet.

Autonomous driving isn’t just on its way. It is here today, albeit in slightly watered-down forms of the full “level 5” treatment of being able to sit back and nap while your car does all the thinking.

And with Super Cruise, Cadillac is pushing the game forward into mass-market cars with genuinely head-turning results. Except don’t turn your head for too long – that lit steering wheel will turn red and you will actually have to use your hands. Oh the humanity.

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