Cadillac Super Cruise Review: How Does It Compare to Tesla’s Autopilot?
A fantasy dating back to at least the Jet Age in automobiles and earlier in science fiction, the “self-driving car” is finally on the cusp of being a reality. Total autonomy is still years away, but the partially automated driver assist systems available on today’s new cars are getting so good they’re causing a lot of confusion about what “autonomous” and “self-driving” really mean. Tesla’s Autopilot system has dominated the conversation for years, but GM is quickly and quietly catching and surpassing Tesla in execution, if not hype. Now, finally available on Cadillac’s most visible and popular product, its less confusingly named Super Cruise technology makes the 2021 Cadillac Escalade the new frontrunner in partially automated driving.
Let’s make one thing inescapably clear right now: There are no self-driving cars on-sale to the public in the world today.
Every single vehicle and technology you can buy right now in early 2021 (yes, even Tesla’s Autopilot) is semi-automated at best, an advanced driver assistance system that can temporarily take over control of the vehicle if very specific conditions are met. Some of them are very, very good at doing that, but this does not make them “self-driving.” The Society of Automotive Engineers breaks this technology into five levels, with Level 0 being a car with none of this tech and Level 5 being a futuristic pod with no steering wheel or pedals. Everything you can buy today is some degree of Level 2, including Autopilot and Super Cruise. If your car can’t drive you from the inside of your garage to your favorite parking spot at work without you ever looking out the windshield, touching the steering wheel, or pressing the pedals, it isn’t self-driving, period.
That understood, it’s easy to see why the average driver is confused. When systems like GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot with Autosteer (the proper name of the technology that operates both the pedals and the steering wheel) are working, they drive the car so well you almost immediately begin to trust the computer to do all the driving while you become complacent or distracted. For the purpose of this review, I’ll refer to Autopilot with Autosteer as simply Autopilot, as it’s more commonly understood.
When Super Cruise is engaged in our 2021 Escalade test vehicle, it does a superb job of mimicking a human driver. There are several characteristics we look for when evaluating these systems, including lane centering, cornering behavior, traffic recognition and response, acceleration and braking inputs, lane changes, and the handover from computer control to the human driver. The Escalade performed extremely well in all of these.
We should also make clear the limitations of these systems and the context in which Super Cruise is being judged. GM has taken a careful, conservative approach to the development and safety of this technology. For the time being, Super Cruise usage is restricted to those freeways and highways the company has mapped with high-precision GPS and cameras. These roads are the safest place for this technology regardless of the manufacturer because they’re the most predictable. Opposing traffic is completely separated, there are no intersections or stop lights, vehicles entering or exiting the road are generally blending in and out of traffic using on-ramps and off-ramps, and there (usually) are no pedestrians or cyclists. Tesla’s Autopilot, by contrast, can be activated at any time on any road and relies entirely on the car’s own cameras and sensors and road information uploaded to the cloud from other Teslas that have driven that road previously.
These differing approaches have pros and cons. Tesla’s makes it appear the technology is more capable than it actually is, able to be used more often in more conditions. It also allows Tesla’s software to learn faster by having every vehicle sold constantly interacting with as many unpredictable variables on the road as possible and constantly uploading that data to the cloud to be processed. This allows for rapid improvements to the Autopilot software, but it also turns every street in America into a real-world laboratory, full of lab rats (everyone not driving a Tesla) who never consented to being part of Tesla’s experiment. It also places an inordinate amount of trust in Tesla drivers to act as unpaid and untrained development engineers overseeing development testing. GM’s approach is slower (painfully at times) and gives the appearance of being less advanced, but it errs heavily on the side of safety by having General Motors engineers do the testing (in a few specific locations) and mapping and giving the customer the final product, which, like Tesla’s, can be continually improved through over-the-air software updates. Tesla, to its credit, allows its drivers to adjust Autopilot’s aggressiveness; GM’s Super Cruise does not.
For as considerable as those differences are, the end result is fairly similar. Let’s start with basic vehicle control. Lane centering is the easiest way to evaluate if this technology is any good. A lesser system will wander around the lane and ping-pong from one side to the other as the computer waits to react until the vehicle is in danger of leaving the lane. An advanced system like Super Cruise is actively steering at all times when engaged to keep the vehicle in the center of the lane. Doing this in a straight line is relatively easy. Corners are the real trick, especially sharp ones. Super Cruise begins turning at the same moment you would if you were steering yourself. The last several Teslas I’ve tested have struggled in this regard, beginning their turns a fraction of a second too late, requiring a sharper steering input that tosses the humans around more. Those same Teslas also routinely had issues with not turning quite enough and allowing the vehicle to drift right over to the far edge of the lane at the end of the curve. The Escalade, and previous Cadillac CT6 sedans with Super Cruise we’ve tested, were better about staying centered in the lane throughout the curve.
Another indication of the quality of such a system is how it responds to other vehicles. Adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to maintain the distance from the car ahead by braking or accelerating automatically, has been around for years, but not everyone has perfected it. Some systems are very slow to recognize a car that’s merged into the lane ahead of you, when a car has merged out of your lane, and when the traffic ahead has come to a sudden stop. In each such situation, Super Cruise performed almost exactly as I would have were I in control. It recognized quickly when a car was entering or leaving my lane and reacted as soon as it was clear the vehicle was merging in or out rather than waiting until the car was fully in or out of my lane. Critically for a luxury product, the Escalade accelerated and braked smoothly and confidently, never slamming on the gas or the brakes. When the traffic ahead stopped suddenly, it braked early and gently rather than waiting too long and slamming on the brakes like less sophisticated systems. In this regard, its performance was equal to Tesla’s Autopilot in my experience, which is also very good at monitoring the surrounding traffic.
While adaptive cruise control and lane centering technologies are both being introduced on many new cars, the next frontier is allowing the computer to change lanes. Only Cadillac and Tesla have introduced automated lane change technology to date, and the two work the same way. When you have Super Cruise or Autopilot engaged and want the computer to change lanes, you tap the turn signal stalk in the direction you want to go (or turn the turn signal all the way on). The computer uses its cameras, radar, and other sensors to find a suitable gap and changes lanes. Super Cruise is somewhat conservative in these situations. It checks the other lane carefully, and even if there’s a big gap it won’t move over if a car is coming up quickly. If traffic in the other lane is holding steady, Super Cruise will speed up or slow down as needed to move safely into the gap and keep its distance from cars in the lane you’re leaving and the lane you’re entering.
Here, Tesla has a distinct advantage. It introduced automated lane changes years before Cadillac did, and Tesla’s system is capable of making lane changes on its own, without input from the human driver, to overtake a slower vehicle on the highway. It will check the passing lane, merge, overtake, and move back into the original lane. Autopilot will also merge onto off-ramps and flyover ramps if you engage Navigate on Autopilot and enter a destination. Super Cruise deliberately refuses to merge onto off-ramps and directs the human driver to take over and make the lane change and exit the highway. Cadillac has suggested it will expand Super Cruise’s capabilities in the future via over-the-air software updates as Tesla does, but no schedule has been announced. As with everything else Super Cruise, the answer is “when it’s ready.” For my part, I’ve been unable to get Tesla’s automated lane changes to work on vehicles I’ve tested and cannot make a direct comparison in real-world behavior to Super Cruise.
Where Cadillac has an enormous advantage is in safety. As I’ve said, it only takes a few minutes of experience with a system as good as Super Cruise or Autopilot to become comfortable and even overconfident in its capability. Studies have conclusively shown that human drivers are very bad at monitoring semi-automated driving technologies and very quickly become distracted. This distraction is especially dangerous because when something goes wrong, the human behind the wheel needs time to become aware of the situation, analyze it, decide how to handle it, and actually take control of the vehicle. At 65 mph, the vehicle is traveling 95 feet every second. How and when the computer loses control of the situation, prompts the human driver, and returns control of the vehicle, and how long it takes the human to recognize, analyze, and respond to the situation matters enormously.
Here, again, Cadillac’s approach is careful, considered, and conservative. The status of Super Cruise is indicated by a brightly colored strip of light on the steering wheel rim, right at the top where the human driver can’t miss it. Green means Super Cruise is in control, blue means Super Cruise is activated but the human driver is currently in control, and red means Super Cruise is turning off and the human driver needs to take control immediately. Super Cruise knows if the human driver is paying attention thanks to a camera behind the steering wheel that watches the human driver’s eyes, even at night and through sunglasses. It knows if the human driver has put their hands back on the wheel thanks to capacitive sensors embedded in the steering wheel rim.
When Super Cruise encounters a situation it can’t handle, typically when it can’t see the lane lines ahead because they’re obscured or worn away, the steering wheel light begins flashing red, a chime sounds, and a large message appears on the instrument cluster screen telling the human driver to take over. Until the human driver takes control, Super Cruise continues to attempt to steer based on whatever data it has and takes its foot off the gas, slowing the car to give the human driver more time to react. If the human driver doesn’t take control, Super Cruise will continue to gradually slow the vehicle and put on the emergency flashers. A very loud message will come over the stereo instructing the human driver to take control. If Super Cruise has to bring the vehicle to a stop, it will automatically call OnStar so a human operator can speak to the driver and find out what’s wrong.
Similarly, if Super Cruise sees that the human driver just isn’t paying attention, it will flash the steering wheel light green to get their attention. If that doesn’t work, it’ll behave as described above, flashing red and taking its digital foot off the gas, playing the message, and eventually stopping the vehicle. Cadillac doesn’t publish the exact amount of time each warning lasts before escalating so as not to encourage people to ignore them, but in my testing I found each lasted more than long enough for a distracted person to look up, get their bearings, and put their hands on the wheel before the next warning. I was frankly surprised how much time it gave me to respond. The only way you’ll ever get to the final stage with the vehicle stopped and OnStar called is deliberately or during a medical emergency. The audio warning is too loud to sleep through. As with Autopilot, when you’re caught ignoring the warnings and failing to take control, you’ll be locked out of using the software again until the car is parked and switched off.
Tesla’s Autopilot, by contrast, throws drivers into the deep end when things go wrong. When Autosteer (the part that controls the steering wheel) disengages, it does so immediately and with a simple audio chime and a change in the instrument cluster graphics. It’s on the human driver to be paying attention and take over immediately, because Autopilot (the part that controls the pedals—the adaptive cruise control) doesn’t slow down. Tesla has so far resisted calls to install a human driver monitoring camera (though a camera that could be used for this purpose can be found above the rearview mirror in its latest Model 3 and Model Ys) and upgrade its steering wheel sensors from a torque system to a capacitive system. Currently, the only way a Tesla vehicle knows if the human driver is paying attention is if sensors in the steering column feel the tug of human hands turning the wheel. This is a system ripe for abuse as it only requires the human driver to occasionally rest a hand on the steering wheel to trigger the torque sensors. Some Tesla drivers have even taken to fooling the system by lodging heavy objects between the spokes. Several fatal Tesla crashes have been traced to distracted drivers ignoring Autopilot’s reminders to put their hands on the wheel and watch the road.
Some argue that because Super Cruise and Autopilot are advanced driver assistance systems and not actually self-driving, the human driver should be expected to maintain full situational awareness and be prepared to take control at any time when the computer is driving. Indeed, legal disclaimers you’re forced to accept when you start up a Cadillac or Tesla equipped with these technologies say as much. Studies have conclusively shown, though, that human drivers are terrible at maintaining their focus on the road when they don’t have to actively drive the car. Further studies have conclusively shown human drivers are absolutely horrible at taking control of a vehicle when they haven’t been paying attention. All the evidence, from academic studies to videos of reckless Tesla drivers and fatal crashes, indicates Cadillac’s approach is the far smarter, safer way so long as this technology remains a driver assistance system and not a true self-driving system.
All the above considered, Cadillac’s Super Cruise may not yet be able to match all the functions of Tesla’s Autopilot, Autosteer, and Navigate on Autopilot, but in areas the two systems overlap (which is most of them), Super Cruise performs at least as well as the Autopilot suite and in some cases performs better. All the while, it does so more safely by tracking the human driver’s attention and preparing them as much as possible as early as possible to take back control of the vehicle. Tesla moved fast, broke things, and radically advanced the state of the art, but Cadillac’s more considered approach is the appropriate one for the vast majority of drivers, and Super Cruise should be made available on as many Cadillac and other GM models as quickly as possible if systems like these are to make any measurable impact on road safety as Tesla has so often claimed Autopilot does.
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