See, Ma! No Hands!

ZOOMER Magazine - - DRIVING - By Jim Slotek

IF I HAD THE dis­pos­able in­come to buy a semi-au­tonomous Cadil­lac CT6, I’d also be in­clined to pri­vately sue, for crimes against scenery, the per­son or per­sons who drew the routes for the Trans-Canada High­way.

If you’ve driven this hu­mon­gous coun­try along its main artery, it can be frus­trat­ing to be so close and yet so far from the Thou­sand Is­lands or from Lake Su­pe­rior or to get the most dis­tant glimpse of the cap­i­tal of Que­bec to which it con­nects.

But the drive east from Que­bec City on the Trans-Canada’s High­way 20 – in a car that ef­fec­tively drives it­self – stymies all at­tempts to hide nat­u­ral beauty. Around Kamouraska, rocky hills abound, and the St. Lawrence River be­gins its tran­si­tion into an ocean. Forty-five kilo­me­tres on, at Rivière-du-Loup, you can book a whale-watch­ing cruise.

It is one of the most beau­ti­ful trans­for­ma­tions of the world out­side your wind­shield – even with pro­jected im­ages on said wind­shield re­mind­ing me of the speed limit and other bits of in­for­ma­tion usu­ally con­fined to my dash­board.

The event was the Cana­dian press launch of the Cadil­lac CT6 with Su­per Cruise con­trol. A few years short of the com­pletely self-driv­ing cars you keep read­ing about, Su­per Cruise is a re­minder of just how in­de­pen­dent our cars are be­com­ing from hu­man in­volve­ment.

In short, once you’re on a qual­i­fied high­way with marked lanes and de­fined on-ramps and off-ramps, you can ac­ti­vate Su­per Cruise, and the car turns with the road, main­tains what­ever speed you set and keeps a rea­son­able dis­tance from cars ahead. You just sit there, your hands and feet do­ing noth­ing until the next lane change (which is still in hu­man hands).

And as I dis­cov­ered, when some id­iot cuts you off, it keeps a cooler head than I would (if two hard drives in the trunk can be said to have a head). At one point in the 160-kilo­me­tre drive, an 18-wheeler driver obliv­i­ously switched lanes in front of me, re­quir­ing my car to brake. My re­ac­tion would have been to hit the brake hard and lean on the horn. The Su­per Cruise slowed down so smoothly I could have had a full

cof­fee with no lid and not spilled a drop. “Any­thing you can do, Su­per Cruise can do bet­ter,” says Cadil­lac Canada prod­uct man­ager Harry Ng, my pas­sen­ger for the launch, adopt­ing a proud par­ent tone (although he tends to re­fer to Su­per Cruise as a “spouse” – more on that in a bit).

“I mean, if a deer jumps in front of you at 10 feet, it is phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to avoid it. Su­per Cruise still has to work within the laws of physics. But rea­son­ably, a threat that comes in will be picked up by lon­grange radar or one of the four short­range radars.”

For all this, Su­per Cruise is a Level 2 semi-au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy, mean­ing it re­quires your at­ten­tion, even if you’re not ac­tu­ally do­ing any­thing. It watches your face and alerts you if your at­ten­tion di­verts for more than a few sec­onds by flash­ing a green light on the steer­ing wheel. A few sec­onds more, and the light turns red and the car coasts. Con­tinue to ig­nore Su­per Cruise, and you get a voice prompt, af­ter which you are as­sumed to be in­ca­pac­i­tated, the car slows down with hazard lights flash­ing and then stops. if you re­main un­re­spon­sive, OnS­tar, the ve­hi­cle safety sys­tem, is alerted.

Which is what we mean by Level 2 semi-au­ton­omy. Level 3, as Ng puts it, would be to play cards with some­one in the front seat. Level 4 would be play­ing cards in the back. “You work with Su­per Cruise as part­ners,” he says. “Like a spouse, a boyfriend, a girl­friend, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is very im­por­tant. When things are all good, you get the green light. If you’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion to your spouse, it flashes green and then red.”

This is more of a com­mit­ment than I ini­tially signed on for. But now I’m in­ter­ested in how far I can push the bound­aries of this re­la­tion­ship. (And so, for that mat­ter, is Ng.) We talk for a bit, with my head turned, and test the alert lev­els (without go­ing so far as to have am­bu­lances en route).

Pre­tend­ing to eat, I con­clude I could do some pretty good nosh­ing, so long as I don’t spend too much time with my head down, un­wrap­ping a bur­rito.

And then, I break the law and pull out my cell­phone. Ap­par­ently, if I hold the phone just be­low chin level, I’m able to check emails without Su­per Cruise ob­ject­ing. At­tempts at tex­ting, how­ever, ob­vi­ously in­volve enough head ac­tion that the flash­ing be­gins. Su­per Cruise will not be tri­fled with – or ig­nored. (And I re­peat, driv­ing while us­ing a hand-held de­vice is both dan­ger­ous and, in most ju­ris­dic­tions, il­le­gal.)

So, other than giv­ing you less to do be­hind the wheel, what’s the point of all this? Cadil­lac has mapped out some 200,000-plus kilo­me­tres of North Amer­i­can high­way, giv­ing the CT6 Su­per Cruise four times the GPS ac­cu­racy of the stan­dard sys­tem you likely have now. It lit­er­ally knows the road more than two kilo­me­tres ahead. And last year, it kicked off the tech­nol­ogy with a se­ries of drives from New York to Los An­ge­les, with jour­nal­ists tak­ing their hands off the wheel in stretches like Mem­phis to Dal­las and Dal­las to Santa Fe.

It’s anec­do­tal, but Ng be­lieves Su­per Cruise goes a long way to­ward solv­ing the prob­lem of driver fa­tigue.

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “Have you ever won­dered why you’re so tired af­ter a long drive? You’re in the com­fort of the driver’s seat. You’re not do­ing any stren­u­ous phys­i­cal ac- tiv­i­ties. But you’re tired.

“It’s be­cause dur­ing the long drive, you have done many, many thou­sands of what we call dy­namic driv­ing tasks. You con­tinue to process the vis­ual in­for­ma­tion. You check the left and you make the right, you make steer­ing corrections.

“All these tasks wear you out. They make you tired. Su­per Cruise does all these tasks for you. You sit back and re­lax and mon­i­tor the driv­ing. It’s much smaller than the ef­fort that is re­quired to con­cen­trate and ac­tu­ally per­form all the driv­ing tasks.”

For now, this hu­man “spouse” still has his place. I was the one who had to get this honk­ing Cadil­lac through the nar­row streets of Old Que­bec (back­ing up and turn­ing in re­verse at one point be­cause a de­liv­ery truck blocked my way).

And if I re­ally wanted to put Su­per Cruise to the test, it would be through the Blue Ridge Moun­tains of West Vir­ginia, Vir­ginia and North Carolina, a white-knuckle run where the In­ter­states (I-79 and I-77) are full of 70 m.p.h. hair­pin cliff turns and “run­away truck” ramps. Some day.

In the mean­time, re­sist­ing the urge to grab the wheel at an ap­proach­ing turn re­mains a true test of willpower.

“The Su­per Cruise slowed down so smoothly I could have had a full cof­fee with no lid and not spilled a drop”

A view of the Tran­sCanada High­way from the Cadil­lac’s in­te­rior

Tour­ing through Old Que­bec City

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