By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
“We were promised jetpacks,” people like to say. Even in an era when we have all the world’s knowledge available on a device that fits in a pocket, it’s a crack on modern technology, a reminder that we still don’t have George Jetson’s house-cleaning robot.
But automated cars? Yeah, we’ve got those. Cars that drive themselves have beat the jetpack.
It’s still rare to find a car on dealer lots with an autonomous system, and these days it’s not just as simple as buying a fully loaded luxury vehicle. Brands like Lexus and Audi don’t sell autonomous cars in our country, but you can find driverless systems as an option in starter vehicles like the Nissan Rogue.
It also seems a rare thing to find a driver totally committed to automated cars. No doubt it takes trust to not take control regularly. Like, for instance, most drivers smartly ease off the gas way ahead of cars at a dead stop in the road ahead. Automated systems, however, barrel along until disconcertingly close before, finally, sometimes terrifyingly, applying a hefty dose of the left pedal.
That said, when autopilot gets it right, it’s fantastically relaxing to set the system and sit back. More than we expected, the stress of highway traffic nearly disappears.
So, if you’re one of the early adopters and in the market for a car that drives itself, here’s a guide to some you’ll find on local lots. If only you could take your jetpack to buy it.
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The rule-follower’s helper
Cadillac CTS (from $46,495)
Cars that can drive themselves have been allowed under Florida statutes since 2012, long before they were actually on sale. But while the rules allow it, that doesn’t mean the driver can simply check out: the law also requires that we’re at the ready to take the wheel at any moment.
Cadillac’s autopilot, called Super Cruise, uses a system to ensure – to downright require – that you’re following the law. After setting the Super Cruise, sensors track the driver’s eyes to make sure you’re watching the road. Look down at your phone for too long or fall asleep, and the system will issue a warning to take the wheel. Go too long and the car will put on the hazards, pull over to the side of the road and call OnStar, figuring you must be worse off than just taking a nap.
Unlike most autopilot systems, which read the lines on the road to know where to go, Cadillac mapped U.S. highways to help guide the car without your input. This means a more steady and smooth operation than other systems that seem to ping-pong between the lines, unsure of the edges of the highway.
That doesn’t mean the system works flawlessly. Tests of the Super Cruise found it would quit unexpectedly in regular traffic, between well-painted lines, meaning you have to take charge quickly.
Those flaws don’t seem to happen too regularly, though, leaving CTS owners with miles of driving free of any input from you. Pair the system with the CTS’s surprisingly smooth plug-in hybrid, and you can theoretically get driven to Jacksonville without ever putting your hands on the wheel.
Ed Morse Bayview Cadillac, Ed Morse Cadillac Delray, Ed Morse Sawgrass Auto Mall, Sheehan Cadillac, Vera Cadillac, cadillac.com
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For the driver who needs a text break
BMW 7-Series (from $83,650) and Mercedes-Benz S-Class (from $89,900)
We’ve lumped these two German brands together here because their autopilot systems are nearly identical. Both offer cars on the high-end of their lineup with systems that’ll drive themselves, but only for stints that seemed designed just long enough to check a text.
Mercedes will give drivers a 12-second break from steering, while BMW just three quick seconds. But that said, the systems do allow for cheating. Just a bit of pressure from a couple of fingers seems to be enough to make the Beemers and Benzes think you’re in control.
Despite those limits, these systems worked nearly flawlessly in our tests, able to find the lines in the road even in I-95 lunacy. There was even an impressive moment in our S-Class tester when it veered around a turn in west Boca and then slowed carefully to a stop behind cars at a red light, all just as smooth as a seasoned driver.
BMW of Delray Beach, BMW of Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale BMW of Pembroke Pines, Vista BMW of Coconut Creek, Vista BMW of Pompano Beach, bmwusa.com; Mercedes-Benz of Coconut Creek, Mercedes-Benz of Delray, Mercedes-Benz of Fort Lauderdale, Mercedes-Benz of Pembroke Pines, Mercedes-Benz of Pompano, mbusa.com.
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Because maybe you’re not committed to autopilot
Infiniti QX50 (from $36,550)
The system that’s headed into Infiniti vehicles this year is a bit of an enigma. Hit steering wheel-mounted buttons to get it going, and the system does everything, including braking, accelerating and steering. It’ll even start back up after a full stop with just the push of a button.
But the system also requires drivers to have their hands on the steering wheel at all times. Our attempts to simply rest a hand on the bottom of the wheel casually were only occasionally effective – typically the car issued warnings that the system would shut down if hands didn’t appear back at 10-and-two.
So, as we rode along on the highway with our hands in proper position, the car drove beneath us. Unlike just taking your hands off the wheel, it’s actually more unnerving to have the car steer beneath you. Sometimes it feels like it’s fighting your best intentions; when we tried to steer away from the barrier separating north and southbound I-95, the system battled us for control, and won, insisting on keeping us inches away from that wall of concrete disaster.
We tested the system, called ProPilot Assist, in the Nissan Rogue, where it began its life in Infiniti’s sister brand. Now that it’s headed to the more luxe Infiniti, perhaps it’ll get a hands-free upgrade so that we can avoid that totally odd feeling of a car wrestling control right out of your hands.
Infiniti of Coconut Creek, Infiniti of Palm Beaches, Sawgrass Infiniti, Lauderdale Infiniti, infinitiusa.com
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The rule-breaker’s autopilot
Tesla Model S and Model 3 (from $44,000)
Tesla claims its owners are using its autopilot system so often that it records a million miles a day of driverless operation. Every one of those miles gets crunched and analyzed by Tesla to improve the system. And frankly, it shows.
The Tesla system is by far the most seamless, with little of the other system’s jerky braking, sudden switch-offs, and ping-ponging between the lines. Yes, the Tesla system does shut down suddenly occasionally, especially when something like Palm Beach County construction turns I-95 lanes into Mario Andretti turns.
But with none of the eye-tracking or hands-on-the-wheel requirements, the Tesla system allows for fully autonomous highway driving where the driver almost never has to take part. And at press time, Tesla was at work on a new update that would allow for even more automated driving, including getting on and off the highway without human help and computer suggestions on lane changes.
That makes the Tesla system both the most effective and the most frightening. No system tempts you more to check that latest tweet, or lean back to see how junior is doing in the car seat, or doze off. And let’s be honest on that last point: it’s not easy to maintain your attention in mundane traffic when the car is doing everything for you. Not paying attention is undoubtedly illegal and at the least, unethical. But it’s also the reason why Tesla owners drive this system for a million miles a day.
Aventura Mall, Dania Beach, Town Center at Boca Raton, tesla.com