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(Bloomberg) -- Cadillac has finally built a six-second vehicle.
That’s how long a driver can spend checking Instagram while the opulent 2018 version of its CT6 sedan drives itself. Then the first of three escalating warnings are triggered. Still, providing a somewhat-safe moment to scan an e-mail is a heroic feat of coding, one that allows the iconic luxury brand to claim parity with similar systems built by Mercedes, Volvo, and most of all, Tesla.
General Motors isn’t squandering this fleeting moment of glory. On Monday, it kicked off a coast-to-coast semi-autonomous trip from its New York headquarters—with a state police escort out of town no less—and gave us a seat for the first leg, all the way to the nation’s capital. (For speed freaks, the new CT6 is actually a five-second vehicle, as far as getting to 60 mph is concerned.)
Cadillac is marketing the gear—dubbed “Super Cruise”—as the “first, true hands-free” driving application on the road. It’s a bold claim for a brand so late to the robo-pilot party, but it’s not inaccurate. To date, similar systems have required a little steering feedback to ensure the driver is paying attention—a little hand, if you will. Cadillac engineers went in a different direction, planting a face-detection camera in the top arc of the steering wheel that constantly stares at its commander.
The downside: One gets a creepy feeling of being watched. The upside: One can safely crush a hefty cheeseburger at speeds up to 85 mph.
The Cadillac system will accelerate, brake, and keep a safe following distance per the pre-set cruise speed while carving gracefully through the corners. It wasn’t even phased by dark sunglasses, the purported bugaboo of face-scanning tech.
But Super Cruise is far less fun or spontaneous than the name suggests. The hardware—a web of radar-blasting pods and seven cameras, including an infrared unit—only works on freeways with exits and on-ramps, and only when cruise-control is activated and the vehicle is traveling dead-center in a lane. When the stately sled is compliant with those three prerequisites, an instrument panel token prompts that the system is ready and it takes control with a push of a button.
Cadillac says it doesn’t want to replace the driver, but rather provide “the flexibility of choice”
When in doubt, however, the CT6 defers to analog driving. For long stretches between New York’s Cadillac House and Washington, on pristine sections of the New Jersey Turnpike, the system stubbornly declined to launch. Meanwhile, changing lanes has to be done the old-fashioned way, and Cadillac warns drivers not to use the system in a tunnel, construction zone, or rainstorm. (Good luck Seattleites!)
While Tesla has swaggered about its self-driving aspirations, going so far as to call its system “autopilot,” GM is being far more conservative—playing the sober step-dad to Elon Musk’s cool uncle. “We do not seek to replace the driver,” said Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen. “True luxury means the flexibility of choice.”
For a road warrior stuck with a brutal daily commute, Super Cruise will be a balm—smoothing jangled nerves just a tad. But it won’t make a driver any more productive or well-rested.
As I zipped out of Manhattan and into New Jersey, jets from Newark Liberty hurtled overhead, filled with passengers binging on Broad City and scrolling through Trump tweetstorms. Down below, I sat behind the wheel with my arms folded, focused on the road ahead. Super Cruise felt like a box of Blue Apron groceries: The meal is meticulously planned and the ingredients prepped, but I still had to cook it.
Cadillac is well aware that Super Cruise is a small step even for an incremental one. The CT6 will be its only vehicle equipped with the self-driving system next year. And unless a customer opts for the most luxurious trim, Super Cruise will cost $5,000 extra.
In short, the burgeoning brand is not banking on Super Cruise to win customers away from BMW, Mercedes, or even Tesla. Few will buy a CT6 because it has a self-driving widget. But the system may keep quite a few potential buyers from ruling out the sedan entirely.
Cadillac chief de Nysschen called self-driving systems a critical step in the brand’s “long journey back to the pinnacle of premium.” In last year’s luxury car market, it was a neat trick. Next year, it’s table stakes. Cadillac just anted up.
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