- Several years ago, I tested CadillacSuper Cruise and TeslaAutopilot, more or less back-to-back.
- Both Cadillac and Tesla have continued to improve their respective semi-self-driving systems, since then.
- Tesla has added features to Autopilot, while Cadillac has upgraded Super Cruise and broadened the number of vehicles it’s available on; General Motors is also bring Super Cruise to the Chevy Bolt family of electric vehicles.
- Cadillac Super Cruise is the better of the two systems, but it’s focused on highway driving, while Tesla Autopilot is more versatile.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The two best semi-self-diving features in the car market are still Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise.
Tesla’s system has been around longer (it debuted in 2015) and uses cameras, radars, sonar, and GPS navigation. In particular, the camera-based visual technology demands that each vehicle with the latest Tesla hardware also contains supercomputer-level processing power, so that it can crunch all the data.
Cadillac’s Super Cruise, which arrived in late 2017, also uses cameras, notably a small unit mounted on the steering column that monitors whether the driver is paying adequate attention. The cameras that manage actually driving the car are aimed at the road and surroundings, however, and are matched with a radar system. But critically, Cadillac also makes use of hundreds of thousands of miles of laser-radar (Lidar) maps, and as long they’re current, the vehicle can determine exactly where it is.
Both systems are essentially adaptive-cruise control – which calibrates distances between cars and adjusts throttle and braking accordingly – plus automatic steering. They’re far from the dream of affordable full autonomy. (Although Cadillac parent General Motors has in Cruise, a company it acquired in 2016, a fully self-driving business on the horizon; and Tesla is aggressively pursuing what it calls “full self-driving.”)
I was lucky in that I got to try them both out. I sampled Super Cruise in a Cadillac CT6 sedan on a drive from New York City to Washington, DC and Tesla’s Autopilot in a Model X on a jaunt from New Jersey to rural Maryland. (The Caddy drive was a manufacturer event, while the Tesla trip was the result of Tesla letting me borrow a vehicle for a few days.)
Which performed better? Read on.
We tried an earlier version of Autopilot several years back and really got into it. But then after a fatal accident involving the technology, we rethought our enthusiasm and decided that going hands-free was too risky.
Fast forward a few years and a brand new Tesla Model X P100D with the latest Autopilot hardware and software landed in my driveway.
That trippy colouring at the top of the windshield, by the way, is due to the tinting and some early morning condensation. The Model X has a huge windshield that functions almost like a moonroof. But all the glass lets in a lot of glare and heat.
The Model X P100D is the top-of-the-line model, and it costs about $US140,000. Ours was set up with a three-row, seven-passenger configuration that handled me, my lovely wife, all three of my kids, my dog, and all our stuff for a weekend trip. There’s no gas-motor under the hood, just an electric motor over each axle (providing “dual motor” all-wheel-drive), so you have extra storage in a front “frunk” in addition to the traditional cargo area in back.
The P100D has Ludicrous Mode and is very fast, plus it sports the famous “falcon wing” doors. The electric range is about 280 miles per charge, thanks to a 100 kilowatt-hour battery pack.
Autopilot is easy to use. When the system is available, it alerts you by displaying a steering-wheel icon, then you can pull down twice on a small control stalk to activate it. You can monitor the sensor in action via the instrument cluster.
Autopilot can, in theory, be used under many driving conditions, and because it doesn’t use Lidar, Tesla believes that it can operate in bad weather better than other systems. Our weather was mostly good, but we did combine daytime and nighttime driving, and we used Autopilot throughout. There was also a brief period of rain when we didn’t use the tech.
Autopilot is at its best on large freeways where traffic is moving at a consistent speed. But it can function on what I would call smaller highways and multi-lane thoroughfares, sort of like very advanced adaptive cruise control.
Autopilot is now included with the purchase price of new Teslas.
However, the full-self-driving feature, including an FSD computer, is a $US7,000 extra. If you want Navigate on Autopilot, you have a shell out for this upgrade – and I’ll get into Navigate on Autopilot and its capabilities in a moment.
You can briefly go hands-free with Autopilot, but I don’t recommend it. And the system really wants you to keep those hands on the wheel.
Autopilot periodically prompts you to retake control, flashing a lighted ring around the instrument cluster. If you ignore the warnings, the system will eventually disable itself until you run through a charge cycle (meaning you have to pull into a charging location and plug it in, but you don’t have to fully deplete the battery).
When I tried Autopilot last year in a Model S P90D, I noticed that the system tackles curves by moving through them in short, straight lines, as it’s micro-plotting a trajectory. Little wheel wiggles are what you have to get used to, rather than the smooth curve calculations that a human can undertake.
Autopilot can change lanes and park itself without having a driver inside. It can also take itself out of a garage, and generally begin to behave like a robot chauffeur. For now, it can be used effectively in stop-go-traffic and on non-highway thoroughfares, so it works like the best adaptive-cruise-control system on the market.
The big difference as far as I discern between Super Cruise running on the highway and Autopilot in the same environment is that Autopilot drives likes its learning on the fly while Super Cruise seems to be reading a very detailed map. Makes sense, as this would be the major distinction between a Lidar-mapping approach and a visually based system.
When the map is no good for Super Cruise, the driver is back in charge. With Autopilot, the situation is more ambiguous. This makes Autopilot more of an adventure and ironically compels the driver to pay closer attention to what’s going on, at least for now.
After I tested Autopilot on the Model X, Tesla delivered an upgrade: Navigate on Autopilot. I tested it out in late 2018.
Navigate on Autopilot has to be enabled (by the way, I sampled the tech in New Jersey, but these images are from a drive in California and were provided by Tesla).
That’s achieved via (in my case) the Model 3’s central touchscreen. Once you give it the OK and input a route through the navigation system, Navigate on Autopilot will become active when Autopilot itself is in operation, and it’s only available for highway operation. You have to touch the blue “Navigate on Autopilot” button on the turn-by-turn directions to make it work.
At a basic level, Navigate on Autopilot can drive a Tesla up a highway on-ramp, suggest lane changes and passing manoeuvres while it follows a plotted route, and it can exit a highway prior to returning control to the driver. This makes Autopilot somewhat more “point-to-point” than it was before, and as CEO Elon Musk has noted, is a needed step toward full self-driving capability.
NOAP, as I’ll refer to it, benefits from a high level of fleet learning, and, as with anything a Tesla with the right sensor set has encountered, can be used to manage merging speeds and take a more intelligent approach to things like pre-exit lane changes.
NOAP will also suggest or deny passing manoeuvres, and the boldness with which it approaches those moves can be set anywhere from Mild to “Mad Max,” for impatient drivers (Average is in between.)
A double-pull-down of the transmission stalk on the right side of the Model 3’s steering wheel brings Autopilot online, and we’re off. Pretty quickly, the systems take over steering for an on-ramp, modulating speed to keep everything safe. I then have to increase the preset adaptive cruise-control speed to a highway velocity – and respond to the Autopilot prompts when it’s time to provide a bit of steering-wheel engagement.
When a slow-moving truck appears in front of us, NOAP suggest a passing manoeuvre and draws it in grey. It’s then up to me to confirm that it’s safe to pass and use the turn signal to execute.
If an obstacle shows up on the Tesla’s sensor range – such as another vehicle off our starboard side – NOAP creates a red line that prohibits the pass.
Then, when it’s time to line up in a lane for exiting, NOAP also offers that indication. When it hits the exit, it slows for the curve, then returns control for slower driving (it gives the driver a distance countdown).
Tesla continues to press for a fully-autonomous version of Autopilot. But for now, the system is limited to assisting driver, who need to remain attentive and in control of their vehicles.
On the Super Cruise side, we have the 2018 Cadillac CT6, the brand’s new flagship sedan.
Super Cruise is now $US2,500 extra available on only the CT6. Autopilot, of course, is available on all Tesla vehicles that have the correct hardware package (there are no Autopilot Roadsters, for example – that original vehicle is too old).
The CT6 can be had for around $US70,000 total on the Premium trim level, and it’s standard when you step up to the $US82,000 Platinum trim. Overall, it’s a very costly option, just as it is on Tesla vehicles. However, the most expensive Caddy CT6 is far less expensive than the most expensive Tesla. But don’t forget that Tesla cars don’t run on gas, and with the exception of a plug-in hybrid version of the CT6, Caddys mostly do.
An apples-to-apples comparison of the CT6 to the Model X as far as the cars themselves go doesn’t make much sense – the Model X is theoretically more versatile as an SUV, while the Caddy is a BMW-fighting American luxury four-door. That said, I have also sampled Autopilot in a Model S P90D, which about a year ago was Tesla’s top-line sedan.
Tesla aims for sleek, minimalist luxury, but to some, it might not be up to the same level as what you get in the Cadillac. In a Tesla, you’re in the car of the future, but you could excuse that for thinking that you’re in a really nice Toyota. Tesla has addressed this complaint and the last time I sat in a Model S – P100D edition – the luxe factor was much higher.
But the CT6 is a beautifully executed luxury barge, so if that matters deeply to you, you will experience Super Cruise in an environment that is objectively superior to the Model X or S. But just to be clear: this type of traditional luxury isn’t for everyone – many Tesla fans, owners, and potential customers might consider it overdone and simply desire a great interior that’s also very open and airy thanks to lack of a gas-powered drivetrain running through the middle of the car.
Super Cruise is also easy to activate — on balance, easier than Autopilot, which is saying something because Autopilot is super-simple.
But you aren’t going to have access to Super Cruise anywhere near as often as you will with Autopilot. Super Cruise will only present itself for duty if these conditions are met: adaptive cruise control is active; the forward collision system is set to alert and brake; the vehicle is on a limited-access freeway; camera or radar sensors are not covered, obstructed, or damaged; the system detects that the driver appears attentive; lane markings are clearly visible, not blurred by weather or other factors; and the “Teen Driver” feature isn’t on.
About that “driver appears attentive” part: Super Cruise uses a camera mounted on the steering column to monitor how attentive you’re being. It disengages if your eyes wander from the instrument cluster. So although it’s possible to engage in risky and distracting behaviours, such as texting or checking Instagram, the system will eventually bust you.
In a Tesla running Autopilot, when everything lights up blue, the system is active. With Super Cruise, green means go.
Cadillac and GM have used laser-radar (Lidar) mapping to suss out hundred of thousands of miles of highways, so Super Cruise is starting with a detailed digital landscape. For example, it won’t make itself available to the driver if the highway being used isn’t up to par, due to construction, for example.
Once you have turned on adaptive cruise control (ACC) and collision avoidance, and have set the cruising system – a familiar process to any owner of a modern luxury vehicle with ACC – Super Cruise will signal that it’s ready by bringing up a steering-wheel icon on the cluster. Then you simply push the corresponding button on the steering wheel, and the entire cruise-control system goes green and a green light bar at the top of the wheel illuminates.
Then you can safely remove your hands from the wheel, restrained only by your own lack of anxiety about a self-steering $US82,000 sedan.
The actual steering is human-like in long, sweeping curves – Super Cruise seems to plot a gradual arc – but in tighter curves, the system shimmies its way through in a manner that’s similar to what Tesla’s Autopilot does.
There’s an occasional wiggle when some lane-keeping calculations are underway, but otherwise, Super Cruise is pretty placid. Even being hemmed in by three semis at 65 mph on the Jersey Pike didn’t seem to perturb it, and that’s usually a white-knuckle situation that compels me to take back total control.
If your eyes wander, the green light bar flashes to bring you back on point, and if you persist, red flashes are accompanied by a seat buzz. Continued obliviousness prompts more rapid red flashing, a warning message on the cluster, and a voice command telling you to take control while the system deactivates (ACC remains on, however, as does the collision-avoidance tech).
Get those hands back on the wheel!
So which system has the edge? Autopilot or …
… Super Cruise?
Super Cruise is so good at the one thing it does well that I’m going to give it to Cadillac, with some caveats.
Super Cruise was superb, in my limited drive-time, and when it was willing to operate. It’s a hyper-conservative approach to Level 2 autonomy – the level at which the driver must monitor the system, but can consider taking his or her hands off the wheel while being prepared to resume control when prompted.
Caddy bills Super Cruise as the first true hands-free self-driving technology for the highway, and if you accept the parameters, you can take your hand off the wheel for relatively long stretches and, if you keep you eyes engaged with the instrument cluster and don’t defy the surveillance of the monitoring camera (which can deal with sunglasses and glare, by the way), it can feel as if an adult is piloting the vehicle.
But it really needs to stay in its Lidar-mapped box, on exactly the right type of freeway, to work.
Autopilot is vastly more ambitious, but in practice, it’s still awkward. Then again, it’s also learning on the fly, sharing data with Tesla’s entire fleet of Autopilot capable vehicles and the mother ship in Northern California. So, in theory, it should benefit from future network effects and be able to match or surpass Super Cruise’s highway talents. The bottom line is that Autopilot could be hands-free in many more environments that Super Cruise.
But Super Cruise is impressive and shows that if you test, test, test before launching and drastically restrict the range of hands-free opportunity, you can deliver a confidence-boosting hands-free system.
Now for the big question: Would I accept hands free with Super Cruise? After all, I won’t with Autopilot.
I didn’t spend enough time with Super Cruise to make that call definitely, but right now I’d answer no. But I think I’d be more comfortable with Super Cruise over time.
But don’t forget that actually using Super Cruise is going to happen less frequently than using Autopilot.
What we ultimately have here is a difference in self-driving philosophy,each consistent with the company’s culture. Cadillac and General Motors are Detroit and more conservative, but also far more experienced with testing and launching systems that aren’t likely to need a lot of post-launch adjustment. Tesla is a Silicon Valley, boundary-pushing company and is willing to enlist owners in the development and refinement of its technology. This actually means that Tesla is trying to increase safety by getting more real-world data.
But it also means that Autopilot asks more of you. If you can deal with that, then you’re going to like Autopilot much more than Super Cruise.
In 2020, General Motors mounted a major push to bring more electric vehicles to market — 22 by 2023 — and started to expand Super Cruise to more cars and SUVs.
The big news was that the new Cadillac Escalade would get the technology, alongside several other Caddy SUVs.
But GM also said it would bring Super Cruise to the next-generation of the Chevy Bolt EV — specifically to a crossover version.
Super Cruise has also been updated, based on user input.
Many of the upgrades to Super Cruise, coming in 2020, are minor and related to customer feedback about how to engage that tech.
But one new feature stands out.
With the current version, if a driver wants to move from one highway to another, they need to take back control while their vehicle negotiates an interchange. In the future, Super Cruise will be able to handle that manoeuvre while Super Cruise is engaged.
Super Cruise will also tweak how it monitors whether a driver is paying attention while the car is in the handsfree mode, which displays a large green light bar on the steering wheel when it’s in use. The improvements are designed to prevent the system from overintervening.
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