Near future of driving: eyes forward, hands free

Near future of driving: eyes forward, hands free

Near future of driving: eyes forward, hands free

I am tapping this into my iPhone while sitting at the wheel of a 2018 Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan, rolling along a shade under 75 mph on Interstate 94 about 20 miles west of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I am not texting and driving, because, technically, I am not driving the car. The car is.

Using a radar sensor, cameras, GPS positioning and a highly precise digital map, the CT6's Super Cruise driver-assistance system is handling all of the braking, accelerating and steering as I continue heading west to a lunch appointment in South Bend, Indiana, 170 miles away. That leaves me free to sit back and type these words - and do much more that would otherwise be considered unsafe - as the mile markers zip by.

Self-driving cars will soon be a reality. Waymo, the autonomous-car division of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is already testing hundreds of self-driving vehicles around the country. The ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft and big automakers including General Motors, Ford Motor and Audi are developing their own technology and test fleets.

In some places, cars with no steering wheels and no pedals are already shuttling passengers around restricted locations, like college campuses and compact downtown areas. Modified models of today's cars are doing the same, helping passengers who would otherwise have a hard time getting around. On freeways, tractor-trailers will navigate themselves between cities while Super Cruise and similar passenger car systems turn even their drivers into, well, passengers.

So, on this brisk November day, my hands-free road trip with Super Cruise offered a glimpse into that future - a world in which the grinding daily commute will transform into quiet time, and long drives can become productive hours on the road.

Super Cruise was introduced in September and is General Motors' answer to Tesla's Autopilot, the best known of the semi-autonomous driving systems that have arrived in the past two years. Neither Autopilot nor Super Cruise is fully autonomous - both require drivers to remain alert and prepared to take control at any time.

But Super Cruise has one big advantage: unlike Autopilot, it does not require you to keep your hands on the steering wheel. As I'm typing this, a camera mounted on the steering column is monitoring my eyes and head. As long as I glance up every so often, Super Cruise knows that I'm keeping an eye on the road.

For more than an hour, Super Cruise pilots the car with no input from me - no steering, no braking and no acceleration. In that time, I cover 65 miles. With my hands-free, I scroll through Twitter and Facebook. I log into my bank account and read the headlines from The New York Times.

As long as I look up at the road about every three seconds, Super Cruise remains in command, maintaining a safe following distance and easing the Cadillac through the freeway's contours. When Super Cruise is engaged, a thin light strip on the top of the steering wheel appears green. If I look away longer than three seconds, it flashes to bring my gaze back on the highway. If I fail to do so, the light strip turns red and the driver's seat vibrates, telling me to take control.

That has happened only once so far. To get Super Cruise back, I need only look forward and place my hands on the wheel. After a few seconds, the light strip turns green again, and my hands are free to go back to the iPhone.

I quickly learn how to glance regularly at the road. My host in South Bend, my cousin Pat, calls me using the video chat function on Facebook Messenger. I hold the phone up over the steering wheel so that I can see Pat on the screen while keeping my gaze looking forward, ensuring Super Cruise remains in control.

All the while, the CT6 stays centred in the left lane of I-94. But if I want to change lanes or to pass other cars, I take the wheel myself and steer the car over. The light strip turns blue, indicating I'm temporarily overriding Super Cruise. Once the car is in the new lane, the strip goes back to green and I'm hands-free again.

It decelerates when approaching slower vehicles. When the road clears, it accelerates back up to the speed I've selected: 74 mph, four over the speed limit. At one point, a car merging onto the highway scoots in front of me. Super Cruise responds quickly and brakes. I sense no danger of a collision.

GM is careful to specify that it is not promoting Super Cruise as a way to let drivers text, Google or open a newspaper on the highway. "We don't recommend it," said Lisa Sieradski, global product manager for the CT6. "It will allow you to glance down at a phone or the radio, but you have to return your eyes to the road."

Nonetheless, using the same video-chatting method, I watch a four-minute highlight video from a New York Rangers game. I also conduct a phone interview, taking notes with a pen and a pad. When my trip ended, I had covered 378 miles. My hands were on the wheel for no more than 25 of them.

Safety first

Sieradski said GM had tried to engineer Super Cruise to keep drivers safe - and limit opportunities to use the system improperly - by restricting how and where they could use it. The system will not operate at speeds above 85 mph, for example.

And Super Cruise can be activated only on divided, limited-access highways such as interstates - places where it need not contend with intersections, traffic lights and pedestrians. The system determines its exact location by relying on high-precision digital maps and GPS technology, while sensors track the surrounding traffic - the way sensors do for driver aides like adaptive cruise control.

The system is able to determine when the car is on a service road along the highway, or even on entry and exit ramps - locations where it requires you to steer yourself.

But when the Super Cruise system senses it is on an approved road, a white steering wheel icon appears on the instrument panel. Press a button, and the green bar lights up and the system takes over.

For now, Super Cruise is available only on the 2018 CT6. Dealers in Michigan are offering the car with the option for about $73,000.

The ability to cruise on the highway hands-free is a major step forward. For many drivers, systems that require them to keep their hands on the steering wheel seem almost self-defeating. What's the point of having the car steer itself if your hands have to stay on the wheel?

While driving the CT6 over several days, I found it was actually more pleasing to leave my phone alone. One morning at rush hour, I sat quietly with my hands on my knees, sipping a latte as if I were relaxing on my couch.

On the return leg of my South Bend trip, I turned on the back massager built into the CT6's driver's seat. From my phone, I piped a new-age meditation through the CT6's sound system.

As I stared at the truck ahead of me, and the seat kneaded my lower back, I crossed the border into the state of Zen. The voice on the meditation intoned: "You are feeling relaxed and calm." For two hours and 120 miles, I was.

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