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Cadillac Super Cruise uses cameras, radar and GPS to allow semi-autonomous driving on some divided highways.

One of the challenges with hands-free driving is figuring out what to do with your hands.

“I wish I could have taken a picture of your face as you let go of the wheel,” says Justin Hall, program engineering manager for the Cadillac CT6, watching my hands hover hesitantly above the wheel as Super Cruise kicked in on a Detroit highway. “You can keep them on the wheel if you want – once you bring your hands down to your lap you know you’re there.”

Super Cruise uses cameras, radar and GPS to allow semi-autonomous driving on certain divided highways.

“We went out and LiDAR-scanned roads and that’s what we use to create high-definition maps,” says Mario Maiorana, Cadillac’s Super Cruise chief engineer. “With GPS, we can get within two metres accuracy of where the vehicle is on that map.”

Right now, it only works on about 13,000 kilometres of highways in Canada, but Cadillac recently announced it will be “almost doubling” that distance by the end of the year.

The additions include highways in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, two provinces that aren’t currently covered.

It’s part of an expansion that will boost total coverage in the United States and Canada from 209,000 kilometres to 322,000 kilometres.

Hands off, eyes on?

Super Cruise debuted on the 2018 CT6 in 2017. It’s included on the $94,195 Platinum version. Otherwise, it’s a $6,925 option. Next year, it will also be available on the CT5.

Basically, it combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist – which most other car makers offer – but lets you drive with your hands off the wheel.

Typically, other systems require you to keep your hands on the wheel at least part of the time. Tesla’s Autopilot now makes you touch the wheel every few seconds to show you’re paying attention. But Cadillac’s system uses a steering-wheel-mounted camera to make sure your eyes are on the road.

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Cadillac is working on doubling the 21,000 kilometres of highways available for Super Cruise users in Canada.Handout

When you switch it on, an LED strip at the top of the steering wheel turns green. You can take your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals.

Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, Super Cruise won’t work if you switch lanes or go on an off-ramp.

Zoning out?

Super Cruise also stops working when you close your eyes – or look away from the road – for longer than four or five seconds, Cadillac says.

If you do look away, you’ll get a vibration in the driver’s seat, the LED strip will turn red and you’ll be back on your own again.

In practice, it works – when I stared at the radio for a few seconds, Super Cruise disengaged – although testing it is terrifying at 120 km/h.

When it was on, I found that even though I was looking at the road, I wasn’t paying the same attention I normally would while driving. I felt like a passenger instead of a driver.

I didn’t notice right away when the speed limit dropped back down to 88 km/h.

So, can drivers zone out even with their eyes on the road?

“My personal experience is … it’s a stress-free drive but I still find myself attentive,” Maiorana says.

Adding uncontrolled intersections

Until now, the technology only worked on highways without intersections – it would turn off and make you take over as you approached a stop light. The car can’t actually see the light, Maiorana says – it just knows where that light is on a map.

But the update will now let Super Cruise work on highways with uncontrolled intersections where cars could be crossing from the sides. It would also work where there’s an amber flashing light.

If a car came veering across your path, you’d still have the normal accident avoidance features, including emergency braking.

Could Super Cruise have potentially avoided at least two fatal U.S. crashes involving drivers who had been using Tesla’s Autopilot?

“I don’t have the specifics and data so it’s hard to speculate what happened in their case and how our system would have worked,” Maiorana said. “There always unpredictable things and that’s why the driver has to be in charge.”

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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