Cadillac SRX self-driving car

Cars without drivers, like the one Google recently used to put a man who is 95 percent blind behind the wheel, are getting closer to reality. But before a fully autonomous car pulls up at your doorstep, the semi-autonomous vehicle will likely take over driving from time to time first.
The day before Steve Mahan enjoyed a hands-free trip to Taco Bell, we sat behind the wheel of a Cadillac SRX test vehicle at General Motors' Milford Proving Grounds, also not driving while cruising along at 60 mph.

Not driving while driving is easy. We started up the SRX and pulled onto the three-mile oval track, set the cruise control and then pressed a button on the steering wheel which engages a lane-centering system that has been dubbed "Super Cruise Control."

"Now, just let go of the wheel," our instructor said after a series of blue lights embedded at the top of the steering wheel turned green. Despite natural inhibitions, we followed his instructions. And just like that, we were driving and not driving at the same time.


The SRX just kept cruising, the wheel adjusting slightly from time to time. Using a series of cameras and radar sensors discretely mounted on the front and back of the crossover, Super Cruise Control keeps the vehicle perfectly centered in its lane. The car's adaptive cruise control, which will be on 2013 production models, monitors traffic in front of the vehicle, slowing down or speeding up all while maintaining a safe distance. The system also provides emergency braking if the radar catches someone cutting in front of you.

Cadillac's hands-free system guides the vehicle down the road better than many people you've witnessed wobbling between lane markers or needlessly varying their speed on the highway. The SRX can even round corners with ease; its green light on the wheel telling you that it's got things under control.

For intermittent driver input, there's a feature that allows you to bump your elbows against the seat to get the vehicle to move over slightly within its lane. So go ahead and pop open that Big Mac--one left elbow jab is all that's needed for an occasional realignment.

At one point during the test drive, we covered our eyes for about five seconds--though it felt a lot longer--embracing the technology, completely hands-free. Really, we might have been able to take a nap, read a book or enjoy a lobster dinner, completely confident the SRX wouldn't let anything bad happen. And, if we wanted to take back full control of the car, at any time we could touch the wheel and the green light would turn blue to let us know that we were back in charge.

Of course, there are pitfalls with this new technology. Drivers need to stay alert in case the system encounters any conditions that may confuse it, such as a merging lanes, lane markers ending or debris obstructing any of the sensors. It's easy to imagine drivers falling asleep at the wheel, getting so distracted that they forget they're driving or otherwise abusing this system to the point of government regulators banning it from responsible drivers. The technology may be ready for prime time, but drivers aren't. Engineers, however, believe something like this system will make it onto vehicles by the end of this decade.

Currently, the human computer is still faster than the mechanical one, processing more information in context better than a machine can manage. A driver can still handle unpredictable situations better--at least for now.