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30th of April 2017

Automotive



Cadillac’s Answer to a Self-Driving Puzzle: Shoving a Camera in Your Face

If you want your new Cadillac to drive itself, get ready for your closeup.

GM’s luxury brand rolls out its Super Cruise technology in the flagship CT6 sedan later this summer. The feature lets the car drive itself on the highway, maintaining its position within the lane and maintaining a safe following distance. Cadillac is late to the party; some Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW models already do at least this much. But the Detroiter enjoys one advantage over everyone else, in that it figured out how to deal with the biggest problem in an autonomous car: You.

The easiest part of the coming shift to autonomous vehicles is highway driving. A robocar tooling down the 405 in LA or on the 80 across Nebraska doesn’t have to deal with a pedestrian crossing the street or a cyclist riding on the shoulder. The tricky part comes when something goes wrong—a sensor fails, the lane lines fade, the weather turns nasty. At that point, the car needs you to resume control. But you are a godawful backup, because, if you’re anything like most people, you’re inattentive and easily distracted.

Ensuring the person behind the wheel can take control at a moment’s notice poses such a daunting problem that some automakers are skipping semi-autonomous features and going straight to fully autonomous vehicles that cut you out of the process entirely. But others are exploring ways of making sure you’re on the ball.

Most of them do this by making sure you move the wheel, even the tiniest amount, every few minutes. Simple and effective, yes, but not terribly logical. Handing over control when you move the wheel makes it awfully easy for the car to inadvertently turn off autonomous mode. Worse, it doesn’t do anything to ensure you’re paying attention. “We touch the steering wheel, move it all the time,” says Bryan Reimer, an MIT researcher who studies driving behavior. “One hand on the phone texting, eyes down, the other making micro-adjustments to the wheel.”

A camera mounted to the steering wheel in Cadillac's CT6 sedan makes sure you watch the road when the car is driving itself.A camera mounted to the steering wheel in Cadillac’s CT6 sedan makes sure you watch the road when the car is driving itself.Cadillac

Cadillac’s answer to this problem? A camera on the steering wheel that tracks your gaze. The CT6 requires you to keep your eyes up, checking the road periodically. If you don’t, the car starts pestering you with audio alerts, a buzzing seat, and a flashing green light in the steering wheel. Continue to ignore your robot overlord and the car turns on its flashers, safely slows to a stop, and summons OnStar just in case something’s gone horribly wrong.

“I think it’s the only reasonable way to do it,” Reimer says. “I believe strongly that driver state sensing, though video-based metrics, is really pivotal to ensuring the driver is capable of regaining control.”

An all-seeing camera in your car may creep you out, but such is the price of being freed from the tyranny of driving. “This allows you to take your hands off the wheel. It doesn’t allow you to read a newspaper or get in the back seat,” says Barry Walkup, the lead engineer for Super Cruise.

To further increase safety, Cadillac is mapping every divided highway in the US and Canada. The maps, which Cadillac plans to periodically update, let the car restrict its autonomous use to highways so you don’t try to turn it on in midtown Manhattan. The maps also give the car an idea of what’s ahead so if there’s, say, a toll booth 3 miles up the road, the car can alert you in plenty of time to have you take control. Once you’ve ponied up the cash, you can flick Super Cruise back on and get back to not driving—as long as you keep your eyes on the road.

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