New Cadillac Super Cruise lets drivers go hands-free in freeway traffic

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The 2018 Cadillac CT6 is showing off an option that is the closest thing to an autonomous car drivers can buy at the moment -- it's called Super Cruise. (KABC)

In recent years, we've seen previews of what self-driving cars might look like someday: anonymous-looking pods, with an appliance-like sensibility to them.

By contrast, you might not even notice one advanced semi-self-driving car that's on the road already.

The 2018 Cadillac CT6 has an option called Super Cruise, and it's the closest thing to an autonomous car you can buy right now. It's almost a natural for Southern California, as it can take care of the task of driving in freeway traffic.

Here's how it works: Through GPS, the car knows if you're on a freeway or divided highway, the only places it will work.

The system then uses cameras to read the lane markings, to determine if it'll be able to steer itself within the lane. And there's one more component: a small motion-sensing camera on the steering column. It's there to determine through body language if the driver is paying attention.

If everything checks out, you push a button, and the top section of the steering wheel illuminates green. You can then take your hands off the wheel, keep your feet off the pedals and let the Cadillac deal with the traffic, even true stop-and-go traffic.

Experiencing it is a little strange at first, but can be quite the stress reliever as the car does all the work.

Other smart cruise controls come close. Tesla has a system called Autopilot, and Nissan/Infiniti has Pro Pilot Assist. They will both help you steer, but sound a warning if you actually keep your hands off the wheel, then eventually shut off if you ignore the warning.

The Cadillac Super Cruise system will cancel itself if conditions change, if you exit the freeway, or if it catches you not focusing on the road ahead. No, you can't suddenly start looking down at your phone or tablet and ignore the road. Cadillac emphasizes that Super Cruise is there to help you drive, not take over the driving for you.

So how did this technology come about? It's been slowing evolving over past 10 years or so.

Does your current car have parking assist, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, or satellite navigation? If so, it has components that make semi-self-driving cars possible, and in the future, cars that completely drive themselves.

Mercedes-Benz has actually built a self-driving S-class that's been traveling the world under the banner "Intelligent Drive." It's equipped with several additional cameras, sensors and lots of computer memory as a rolling test bed.

Car specialist Dave Kunz recently got to take a ride in the car, with a Mercedes engineer behind the wheel. The S550 literally did drive itself - on Southern California freeways, surface streets, even a winding two-lane road on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Aside from some graphics, nobody on the road could tell this was any different from a standard S-class sedan. Mercedes-Benz hints that there could be a production version within a couple of years.

The current S-class does have a steering assistance system, but like others from Tesla and Nissan it will disable the feature if it detects that the driver has his or her hands off the wheel.

In the meantime, if you want a car that can almost drive itself, it's Cadillac for now. So far, Super Cruise is only available on upper trim levels of their flagship CT6 sedan (the one Kunz tested for this story had a sticker price of nearly $90,000). But Cadillac could add it to their other models very soon.

This type of system could be on all kinds of more affordable cars within a few years.
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