The two best semi-self-diving features in the car market right now are Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise.
Tesla’s system has been around longer (it debuted in 2015) and uses cameras, radars, sonar, and GPS navigation. In particular, the camera-based visual technology demands that each vehicle with the latest Tesla hardware also contains supercomputer-level processing power, so that it can crunch all the data.
Cadillac’s Super Cruise, arriving in late 2017, also uses cameras, notably a small unit mounted on the steering column that monitors whether the driver is paying adequate attention. The cameras that manage actually driving the car are aimed at the road and surroundings, however, and are matched with a radar system. But critically, Cadillac also makes use of 130,000 miles of laser-radar (Lidar) maps, and as long they’re current, the vehicle can determine exactly where it is.
Both systems are essentially adaptive-cruise control — which calibrates distances between cars and adjusts throttle and braking accordingly — plus automatic steering. They’re far from the dream of affordable full autonomy.
I was lucky in that I got to try them both out recently, although it wasn’t planned. I sampled Super Cruise in a Cadillac CT6 sedan on a drive from New York City to Washington, DC and Tesla’s Autopilot in a Model X on a jaunt from New Jersey to rural Maryland. (The Caddy drive was a manufacturer event, while the Tesla trip was the result of Tesla letting me borrow a vehicle for a few days.)
Which performed better? Read on.
We tried an earlier version of Autopilot several years back and really got into it. But then after a fatal accident involving the technology, we rethought our enthusiasm and decided that going hands-free was too risky.
Fast forward a few years and a brand new Tesla Model X P100D with the latest Autopilot hardware and software landed in my driveway.
That trippy coloring at the top of the windshield, by the way, is due to the tinting and some early morning condensation. The Model X has a huge windshield that functions almost like a moonroof. But all the glass lets in a lot of glare and heat.
The Model X P100D is the top-of-the-line model, and it costs about $140,000. Ours was set up with a three-row, seven-passenger configuration that handled me, my lovely wife, all three of my kids, my dog, and all our stuff for a weekend trip. There’s no gas-motor under the hood, just an electric motor over each axle (providing “dual motor” all-wheel-drive), so you have extra storage in a front “frunk” in addition to the traditional cargo area in back.
The P100D has Ludicrous Mode and is very fast, plus it sports the famous “falcon wing” doors. The electric range is about 280 miles per charge, thanks to a 100 kilowatt-hour battery pack.
Autopilot is easy to use. When the system is available, it alerts you by displaying a steering-wheel icon, then you can pull down twice on a small control stalk to activate it. You can monitor the sensor in action via the instrument cluster.
Autopilot can, in theory, be used under many driving conditions, and because it doesn’t use Lidar, Tesla believes that it can operate in bad weather better than other systems. Our weather was mostly good, but we did combine daytime and nighttime driving, and we used Autopilot throughout. There was also a brief period of rain when we didn’t use the tech.
Autopilot is at its best on large freeways where traffic is moving at a consistent speed. But it can function on what I would call smaller highways and multi-lane thoroughfares, sort of like very advanced adaptive cruise control.
Currently, the system is what Tesla calls “Enhanced Autopilot” (“Full Self-Driving Capability” is on the horizon and Tesla thinks it has the right software/hardware combo to make it work). Autopilot now costs $5,000 to add when you order a vehicle, but $6,000 as a post-purchase upgrade.
As Tesla explains it on the website:
Eight surround cameras provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength that is able to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.
Yes, redundant wavelengths are quite cool!