Wheels: For the New Cadillac, Now Comes the Real Test

Wheels: For the New Cadillac, Now Comes the Real Test

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The first of Cadillac’s new offerings will be a semiautonomous driving system called Supercruise. It will be available as an option by the end of the year in Cadillac’s flagship sedan, the 2018 CT6. Supercruise will allow drivers to zip along on major highways without touching the steering wheel. It is intended to rival Tesla’s Autopilot technology, which requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.

“We want to signal that Cadillac is at the forefront of technological achievement,” Mr. de Nysschen said. “Supercruise is a proof point for that.”

Like Autopilot, Supercruise uses radar and cameras to see the road. But it supplements those with lidar, a kind of radar that uses lasers. The system operates only on divided, limited-access highways that are free of cross traffic, intersections and pedestrians.

When Supercruise is engaged, drivers are only required to look at the road ahead. A tiny camera mounted on the rearview mirror tracks the driver’s eyes and triggers a warning sound if the driver looks away for too long. “Theoretically, you could drive from New York to Los Angeles without putting your hands on the steering wheel,” Mr. de Nysschen said.

Autopilot and similar technologies from Volvo and other luxury automakers beep and flash warnings if drivers take their hands from the wheel for extended periods of time. For some people, that makes them more annoying than useful.

For Tesla, getting the right balance between too few and too many warnings has been a difficult challenge. Autopilot does not have a camera to track the driver’s eyes, and an earlier version let drivers keep their hands off the steering wheel for several minutes under certain conditions.

In 2016, an Ohio man died when his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer while Autopilot was engaged. The system’s forward-looking camera and radar failed to recognize the truck in the roadway, and neither Autopilot nor the driver applied the brakes. Federal investigators determined the driver had ignored several warnings to keep his hands on the wheel.

Cadillac’s president, Johan de Nysschen, inside the company’s new headquarters in New York. “We want to signal that Cadillac is at the forefront of technological achievement,” he said.

Credit
Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

Supercruise will be followed next year by Cadillac’s introduction of a new small sport-utility vehicle, called the XT4. That model is the first to break from the angular styling of other Cadillacs, setting the company on a new design path.

The whole push is a giant gamble. Returning the luster to a damaged brand is no easy task, and previous attempts by G.M. have fallen short. The overhaul Mr. de Nysschen is leading will cost the automaker several billion dollars by 2020, by which time its model line will most likely have been completely remade.

Success, however, would resurrect what was once one of the most admired American brand names — one that was long a synonym for luxury.

Mr. de Nysschen spent most of his career at Audi, and ran its United States unit during a period of rapid growth from 2004 to 2012. He then took over Nissan’s Infiniti brand, but left after just two years to become the president of Cadillac.

At Mr. de Nysschen’s urging, G.M. reorganized Cadillac as an independent division and has moved the brand into its own gleaming headquarters in Manhattan, far from Chevrolet and G.M.’s other, more down-market, brands back in Detroit. Existing models have been updated and given new names: the CT6 sport sedan replaced the CTS. The XT5 sport-utility vehicle replaced the SRX.

Mr. de Nysschen said the headquarters move had helped “redefine what Cadillac stands for,” and focus the staff precisely on “excellence of execution” — one of the values the new Cadillac wants to be known for.

Rick Mastria, the owner of a Cadillac franchise in Raynham, Mass., said he was “blown away” by the plans Mr. de Nysschen outlined when he first arrived in 2014. But the wait for the new models has been difficult. “I’m not sure the move to New York City has done anything for the brand,” Mr. Mastria said.

It will take a lot to change consumer perceptions, too. Chris Kanuit, a retired manufacturing executive in Jacksonville, Fla., has considered buying Cadillacs a few times in the last several years, but always ended up sticking with BMW instead.

“You look at a Cadillac and there’s a lot of bling,” he said. “They have a splashy look. BMW is not as showy.”

That is one of the next issues Cadillac will address, Mr. de Nysschen said. The forthcoming XT4 S.U.V. will have some of the design elements Cadillacs are known for — the distinctive grille and the vertical lighting theme. But the wedge-shaped look of the current models is on the way out.

The new look will be more curvaceous and sculpted, he said. The beltline — the line where the doors meet the windows — will be lowered, and the wheels moved closer to the corners.

“They will be drivers’ cars,” Mr. de Nysschen said.

The intent of the design changes is to appeal to the current generation of premium car buyers. In the past, baby boomers wanted luxury cars that advertised their success, Mr. de Nysschen said. Younger generations want a more subtle expression of luxury. “They don’t necessarily scream out their success to the rooftops, and if you’re not relevant to them, you’ll face a lot of headwinds,” he said.

Within a year, China will most likely surpass the United States as Cadillac’s largest market. Even so, Mr. de Nysschen thinks the new Cadillac has a chance to win back market share at home — and compete head-to-head with the German brands and Lexus.

“We realize it’s a long-term journey still,” Mr. de Nysschen said.

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