Opinion | My Big Fat Self-Driving Road Trip

Wha’s so terrible about that? I have argued before that we can’t solve problems caused by cars — among them climate-warming emissions — simply by building better cars. Research has shown that even with more efficient electric cars, Americans will have to drive much less and walk, bike, and ride transit much more in order to meet climate goals.

The Escalade’s comforts defeat that goal; many times, I found myself driving more, longer, because driving the Escalade was so totally easy. If most cars become as comfortable, convenient and luxurious as this one — while growing ever larger — what hope is there that we might ever reduce our dependence on these monstrous machines? Also, should I plan to lease, or to buy?

To see why I’m so taken with the Escalade, let me tell you about Super Cruise, GM’s autonomous driving system, which is among the industry’s most advanced. Many cars now offer some version of driving assistance, but most manufacturers’ self-driving systems, even Tesla’s Autopilot, requires the humans sitting in the driver’s seats to keep their hands on the steering wheel while the car is piloting itself. Super Cruise dispenses with the wheel touching.

After engaging the system, you can twiddle your toes and put your hands in the air like you just don’t care. The car will steer, stay centered in a lane and adjust its speed to keep pace with the traffic around you (up to a set maximum speed). When you tap the turn signal, it will search for a safe spot and change lanes. Sometimes the car encounters a problem (for instance, the road’s lane lines are too faint for it to pick out) and it informs you to take over.

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The car does not navigate by itself — that is, it won’t follow a route to an address — so you’ve got to enter and exit the freeway manually. But if you’re going to be on one road for a long while, you can turn it on and, for the most part, do nothing while it keeps chugging.

All the car asks is that you keep looking forward, in the general direction of the road. A small camera mounted on the steering column watches you to make sure. If you look away for more than a few seconds, or cover or block your eyes while eating, reading, texting and the like, the car will issue a series of warnings for you to pay attention. If you fail to heed the warnings, the car will eventually disengage Super Cruise and begin to slow down. Ignoring it isn’t easy; there are angry red lights, a buzzer in your seat, a stern voice scolding you, and I, for one, was quick to obey.

Super Cruise’s main limitation is geographic. Unlike Tesla’s system, which can be activated on pretty much any road, Super Cruise can be engaged only on the few hundred thousand miles of American roadway that GM has mapped. In practice, this means it works on most state and Interstate highways. I wasn’t keeping track, but I’d estimate it was available on about two-thirds of our trip.

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