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Is Cadillac’s “Super Cruise” one small step toward self-driving cars?

2013 Cadillac XTSSoon Cadillacs will be able to drive themselves. Well, almost.

Cadillac’s “Super Cruise” semi-autonomous driving system can take control of a car in certain situations, but it still requires a human a human to sit behind the wheel.

Super Cruise piggybacks off several existing safety technologies and is about to begin real-world testing. Cadillac hopes to have it ready for production by the end of the decade.

The new system can follow a car whether the driver’s hands are on the wheel or not, and automatically accelerate and brake. It accomplishes all of that with a mosaic of data from radar, ultrasonic sensors, GPS, and cameras, including forward-facing units that can identify lane markers, curves, and other road characteristics to center a car in its lane.

Much of this tech comes from Cadillac’s current production models. The new-for-2013 Driver Assist Package, offered on the ATS and XTS, features the same array of sensors and the same ability to “fuse” their data into a 360-degree detection sphere.

Super Cruise’s lane following and autonomous braking features also aren’t too far removed from the automated cruise control and braking systems Cadillac offers on certain 2013 models.

However, Super Cruise-equipped Caddys won’t be able to drive themselves. Even with all of those sensors, there will be situations in the real world when the system won’t have enough data to make decisions. Cadillac says Super Cruise is susceptible to unpredictable traffic and weather conditions, as well as less-than-pristine lane markings.

Even in optimal conditions, Cadillac says Super Cruise will be limited to freeway use.

“The system is designed to ease the driver’s workload on freeways only, in bumper-to-bumper traffic and on long road trips; however, the driver’s attention is still required,” a Cadillac statement said.

Cadillac Super Cruise diagramWhile it is not the robotic driver some hope for (and other fear), Super Cruise will take significant amount of work away from the driver, and Cadillac predicts that might tempt the humans to pick up their smartphones or prod their Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment touch screens.

“Drivers may be tempted to engage in secondary tasks during semi-automated driving, and we need to make sure we understand the changing conditions,” Daniel Glaser, General Motors Safety Center engineering specialist, said.

That’s why Cadillac will put drivers in a simulator to test how they react to Super Cruise, in addition to putting the system itself through more challenging driving scenarios to further hone the machines’ skills.

Cadillac says the Super Cruise hardware already fits into a “near-production” package, so testing and refinement are all that separate it from showrooms of the future.

Would you trust a Cadillac to steer itself through a morning commute? Tell us in the comments.