In the world of advanced driver assist systems, the companies with the two earliest and most advanced systems (for now, anyway) are General Motors and Tesla. Their products, Super Cruise and Autopilot respectively, though, are as different as Android and Apple.
I’m an iPhone person and have never even picked up an Android phone. I also own a Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot. Unlike with my phone, however, I’ve decided to cross party lines to test the latest version of Super Cruise in a 2021 Cadillac Escalade. My experience spending one week and over 1,000 miles with the Escalade taught me one thing: GM and Tesla have two very different goals.
GM was kind enough to loan me a 2021 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Sport Platinum for a week during which I planned a high-mileage road trip with lots of highway drive time. The base price of this trim is $102,995 with a $1,259 destination charge, and Super Cruise was an added option for $2,500. Despite the upfront cost, Super Cruise also requires a subscription, though it comes with three years free before a regular charge of $25 per month kicks in.
Since Super Cruise debuted back in late 2017, it’s been available on very few GM vehicles. What began with the Cadillac CT6 which is now dead, has expanded only to the Chevy Bolt EUV, Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac CT4, Cadillac CT5, Chevrolet Silverado, and GMC Sierra for the 2022 model year. At that time of this writing, though, the only GM vehicle you can buy with Super Cruise is the Bolt EUV; the automaker has pulled the option from the Escalade for the rest of the 2022 model year and hasn't quite yet started offering it on the others.
For context, my own Tesla is a 2019 Model 3 Long Range with dual motors and all-wheel drive. It comes with Autopilot standard, as all Teslas do, which includes “the ability for the car to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically for other vehicles and pedestrians.” It’s like Super Cruise Lite, in that it can do everything Super Cruise can except perform an automatic lane change at your command.
I also bought Full Self Driving with my Model 3, which cost an extra $7,000 at the time. It’s now $10,000 up front with the purchase of a car, and it’ll soon be offered for a monthly subscription fee of $199.
To be clear, FSD is different than Autopilot and includes a feature called Navigate on Autopilot, which lets the Model 3 follow a navigation route on the highway where the car can do things like automatically exit and enter new highways and automatically change lanes to pass slower traffic, without your input. FSD has some other tricks, as well as the future promise from Tesla that it will drive you from Point A to Point B regardless of road or circumstance, but that remains a promise unfulfilled. This comparison, though, is between Super Cruise and Autopilot, not FSD.
GM and Tesla have armed their driver assist systems with very different resources to help them accomplish their tasks.
Super Cruise uses a combination of map data created by special vehicles equipped with highly sensitive LiDAR sensors and hardware mounted on your car like cameras, radar sensors, and GPS equipment that senses the environment in real time.
Your vehicle can only use Super Cruise, though, on highways that GM has pre-mapped with LiDAR data. When that condition is met, Super Cruise will compare the LiDAR map data with what its onboard sensing hardware is seeing in order to decide what to do. If the system can’t resolve the two data sources, it may ask the driver to take over.
Tesla’s system doesn’t pre-map any roads. It’s designed to observe every situation as unique and decide what to do based on what it “sees” at that moment. Its cars used to rely on a combination of data from cameras and radar sensors, but Tesla recently decided to ditch radar altogether because it could achieve better and quicker results with cameras alone.
Unlike Super Cruise-equipped vehicles, no Tesla is an island. When Autopilot is activated, the data it records is being uploaded back to the Tesla mothership. This anonymous incoming data from millions of Teslas is fed into a neural network that’s constantly learning and improving the driver assist software, and those improvements are then downloaded to every Tesla via over-the-air updates that happen regularly.
Super Cruise gets better over time too. GM has added tens of thousands more miles of Super Cruise-capable highways to its sandbox, which now includes somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 miles of road. It also updated the system’s hardware in 2021 to add automatic lane change functionality and improved other features via new software.
On My Mark, Engage
The act of turning on Super Cruise or Autopilot is relatively straightforward and easy for both, though one’s a bit easier than the other.
To turn on Super Cruise, you first engage adaptive cruise control. Once done, you’ll need to look at the information display straight ahead of you for a green steering wheel icon. If you’ve opted for the Escalade’s Head-Up Display, the icon will appear there too. If it’s present, that means the road you’re on works with Super Cruise.
To engage the system, you hit a dedicated button on the left side of the steering wheel. All in, it takes two button presses and a glance to see if that icon appears. Tapping the brakes or pressing the Super Cruise button again will disengage the system.
Turning on Autopilot is even simpler. Just pull down the stalk on the right side of the steering wheel twice. Since Autopilot works to some degree on almost every road, it will just turn on with a unique chime and begin following the road’s path. If for some reason it can’t turn on, like not being able to detect the edges of a lane, it will make a different chime and remain off. Like Super Cruise, disengagement requires a brake tap or pushing up on the same stalk once.
Once on, Super Cruise doesn’t offer much information to the driver other than the icon that indicates its on and the speed you’ve chosen for ACC. Autopilot, though, dedicates about a third of its massive 15-inch screen to showing you what it sees in real time. The display depicts a third person view from behind your car that shows your lane, the lane on either side of you, some distance in front of your car, and a little bit of area behind your car. Within that view, Autopilot will show you an animation of everything it sees, from cars, SUVs, and semi trucks to traffic lights, stop signs, and garbage cans.
This particular Autopilot feature is significant because viewing in real time what the system sees has given me a higher degree of confidence in Autopilot than other systems that keep me blind.
Performance (How Well They Work)
This is the truth coming from a Tesla owner: Super Cruise works just as well as Autopilot as a hands-free driver assist system. Since Tesla requires at least one hand on the wheel at all times while Autopilot is engaged, I was curious whether or not I would feel safe with no hands on the wheel while Super Cruise was engaged. Within minutes of first using the system, though, I felt fine leaving my hands off the wheel and it quickly became natural.
For about 85 percent of all situations you might encounter on the highway, Super Cruise and Autopilot felt nearly identical to me. For the other 15 percent, one or the other behaves in a more natural and worry-free way, but the differences are minor. For instance, Super Cruise is very good at transitioning from a two-lane highway to a three-lane highway and staying in its lane. Autopilot gets confused by this transition and drifts for a second while it decides whether or not to follow the new lane or the old one.
This is the truth coming from a Tesla owner: Super Cruise works just as well as Autopilot.
Speaking of drifting, Super Cruise wanders inside its lane more than Autopilot. It’s not as bad as less advanced driver assist systems that ping pong from one side of the lane to the other, but Super Cruise feels like it was designed with a larger tolerance for where the vehicle is centered in the lane. Autopilot, in my experience, does the best job at staying centered and steering with the most natural feel.
I had the opportunity to drive through heavy rain during my time with the Escalade, and Super Cruise handled this inclement weather just as well as Autopilot. They’re both able to keep working beyond the point I’m comfortable letting them during a heavy downpour.
Super Cruise is also just as good at automatic lane changes as Autopilot. Once you turn on your blinker, it patiently waits for an opportunity and gets over swiftly and naturally when there’s an opening. The bigger difference here is that a Tesla with Full Self Driving can change lanes and pass cars entirely automatically without you even turning on your blinker; Super Cruise won’t do that.
There are times when Autopilot will suddenly turn off, but it’s relatively rare compared to Super Cruise, which turns off a lot.
What about involuntarily deactivating? There are times when Autopilot will suddenly turn off, but it’s relatively rare compared to Super Cruise, which turns off a lot. Here you can see the nature of a younger, more innovative, faster-moving company compared to a mature, risk-averse one. Tesla seems fine letting Autopilot figure things out on the fly with the driver as a back up, whereas GM prefers to limit its liability by turning all control over to the driver in many scenarios.
Super Cruise also just doesn’t work on many roads. Over 200,000 miles of Super Cruise highways might sound like a lot, but in practice it isn’t. GM has a map that shows all highways where Super Cruise will work, and many states in the Northwest have just one.
And even when a highway you’re travelling on is Super Cruise-capable, it may cut out for a period of time for no discernible reason. We experienced this when traveling through large cities – Super Cruise often wasn’t available for a period of time on the outskirts of the city, but worked fine approaching the city and inside the city limits.
Who’s Watching Who?
Both GM and Tesla have ways of monitoring the driver to make sure he or she is paying attention and ready to take back control if needed. GM uses an eye-monitoring system with a camera placed atop the steering column, whereas Tesla uses a torque sensor to ensure your hands are on the steering wheel. So one monitors your eyes and the other your hands. There’s been a lot of debate about which is better, so let me comment on both.
GM eye-monitoring tech is very good and has a low tolerance for you looking anywhere but straight ahead through the windshield. Doing so for too long will quickly elicit a warning that’s followed by the disengagement of Super Cruise. Again, GM appears more cautious here than Tesla because the system is very difficult to trick and gives the driver a very short leash.
Tesla’s torque-sensing system, meanwhile, requires you keep at least one hand on the wheel or the same warning followed by the system disengaging will occur. You have a longer window in the Tesla, though, before the warning happens, perhaps about two to three times the grace period that Super Cruise allows. Also, as the internet has proved, Tesla’s monitoring system is fairly easy to trick if you really want to, though you never should. Every ADAS driver monitoring system, including Super Cruise, can be fooled too; the others are harder but not impossible. Car and Driver has proven this.
Also, while both systems do an OK job ensuring a driver is paying attention and ready to take over, they would do a much better job together. Adding eye-monitoring tech to Autopilot would make it much more difficult for thrill seekers to exit the driver’s seat while the system’s engaged, and having Super Cruise require a hand on the wheel would improve the chances a driver could take over quickly enough to prevent an accident. One thing I learned while driving with Super Cruise is that, when engaged, I kept my hands anywhere but close to the wheel, which means my reaction time would be much slower than in a Tesla.
Which Is Better?
Regardless of which is better – Super Cruise or Autopilot – I’m 100 percent convinced you’re safer using either of them on the highway than not using them at all. That said, I have to give the overall nod to Autopilot. The biggest factor is that it works on practically every road compared to the limited availability of Super Cruise-capable highways. Tesla has also created a system that’s constantly learning and improving, and it makes certain of that with very regular OTA updates. Lastly, Autopilot is standard on every Tesla sold, whereas Super Cruise is still limited to a small selection of GM vehicles and costs both an up-front fee and a subscription to use.
All that said, I ended this test very impressed with Super Cruise. It would be an even stronger competitor if GM cranked up the rate at which it’s mapping highways, offered it on more vehicles, and made the price more palatable somehow. But the underlying tech is solid and performs as well in the real world as Tesla’s Autopilot – even better in some situations.