Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
I spent nine hours in a car that mostly drove itself—but that didn’t mean I could just sit back and relax.
Letting go is hard.
But here I am, going 65 miles an hour on the busy Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C., in an $84,000 Cadillac. The automaker’s rep assures me that it is, in fact, safe to take my hands off the steering wheel, and my foot off the pedal. The car, a 2018 CT6 sedan, is equipped with the company’s semi-autonomous Super Cruise system; it’ll safely take over—as soon as I muster up the fortitude to relinquish control.
I press the button telling the car to turn on its self-driving mode and slowly loosen my grip on the steering wheel. But I keep my hands close by, ready to grab hold again should this turn out to be a ruse.
To my amusement, the bar at the top of the wheel lights up green, and the car gives a slight jolt as it realigns itself to the center of the lane. I can feel it accelerating and decelerating as it adjusts itself to match the speed of traffic. The car tackles the winding curves of the Beltway much more smoothly than I would have. Trusting the car takes some time: When another vehicle merges into my lane, my heart jumps just a bit. But the big Caddy sees it, too, and it brakes to let the other driver in. And soon enough, I find myself relaxing.
Cadillac rolled out Super Cruise with a cross-country media junket from New York City to Los Angeles. I joined them on the second leg of the excursion, from D.C. to Cleveland, Ohio. [Disclosure: Cadillac paid for the trip, including a one-night hotel stay.] It’s an unusual road trip, but one that might just seem completely normal in a few years.
Super Cruise is Cadillac’s answer to Tesla’s Autopilot technology; it’s billed as “the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology for the highway.” It’s a “level 2” self-driving system that can control steering and speed for minutes at a time, at the maximum speed of 85 miles per hour. Switching lanes, taking exits, and weaving through construction zones are tasks still largely left to the driver.
Unlike Tesla, which promises that its Autopilot can work in cities, Super Cruise only operates on well-defined, limited-access highways where opposing traffic is separated by a concrete or grassy median. It relies on a front camera and sensors to detect lane lines. A database with more than 160,000 miles of highway in the U.S. and Canada mapped using advanced LIDAR technology allows the system to keep the car centered with better precision and to anticipate road and traffic changes up to 2,500 meters ahead. The map will be updated every few months, partly over satellite technology and partly via a more labor-intensive method of sending out mappers to specific highways.
As Cadillac tells it, the person in the driver’s seat is more of a “partner” than a passenger: You are expected to still pay attention to the road. (An eye-monitoring camera on the steering wheel makes sure of that.) I’m a perfect test driver for such a feature: a rookie driver who’s slightly sleep deprived and can be easily distracted by the frequent pings coming from her phone.
I got to go on a road trip of the future, in Cadillac's new semi-autonomous car. Story to come! pic.twitter.com/KBZXMa6Si4— Linda Poon (@linpoonsays) October 2, 2017
Case in point: Not even an hour into the drive, I reach for my phone to open up Instagram, diverting my gaze for what I thought would be just a second. (Do not try this at home, or anywhere else.) It’s easy to succumb to such temptation; with the car taking care of the driving, you’re just not sure what to do with your hands. And your mind tends to wander.
But Cadillac’s engineers anticipated something like this would happen. The car furiously beeps at me; the green light bar now flashing an alarming red. Returning my attention to the road calms it down. Had I ignored the signs, the car would have gradually slowed down to a stop and called for help, assuming that I was incapacitated.
Whether self-driving cars are the solution to distracted driving is still very much up in the air. Some experts say the technology leaves little room for human error. Others note that as AVs begin rolling out, drivers will become over-reliant on a system that’s still far from perfect. Last year’s fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and a Tesla Model S on Autopilot seems to highlight that point. In a report released in September by National Transportation Safety Board, investigators placed the blame on the driver’s over-reliance on system. Earlier findings indicated he ignored six audible warnings and seven visual ones from the dashboard.
When it comes to the relationship between drivers and autonomous vehicles, perhaps Wired’s Jack Stewart puts it best:
Paradoxical it may seem, but the more control the car has, the more it needs to know about the person sitting behind the wheel—whether they're paying attention, their mood, even their health.
Super Cruise periodically disengages. Sometimes it’s because the lines on the road become more difficult to detect. On other occasions, it seems random; a spokesperson attributes it to minor bugs that engineers are continuously working on. As we approach a construction zone on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the system remains engaged and the car slows down considerably. I reach for a sip of water, not noticing that the barriers put out by construction workers had created a relatively sharp turn—one that turns off the autopilot. The car starts to beep, and fortunately, the other journalist in the front passenger seat catches the wheel and steers us in the right direction. (Admittedly, my reaction comes a bit late.)
No matter who’s driving, the big Cadillac makes an exceedingly comfortable highway cruiser—it’s got plush leather seats equipped with back massagers, an advanced climate control system for each passenger’s needs, and 10-inch HD screens for those in the backseat. As the drive continues, I do manage to take a couple of photos and videos from behind the wheel to share on Instagram, though halfway through the nine-hour trip (a few stops along the way and an escapade involving a misplaced phone set us back a couple hours) much of the novelty has worn off. And so does that urge to push the limits of the CT6’s safety features.
I find myself gently resting my hands on the wheel, despite not being required to do so. This is partly because I have nothing else to do—and partly to remind myself that while the car might be shouldering much of the burden of driving, I’m still the one in the driver seat.