Sep 15, 2023 - Economy

My hands-free drive halfway across the U.S.

Illustration of push pins with wifi signals on a road map

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

I drove round-trip from Detroit to New York City over Labor Day weekend — a grueling 10 hours each way — but for a good chunk of that time, the car took the wheel for me.

Why it matters: Cars with hands-free driver-assistance features are coming on the market thick and fast, but consumers are still wary of them.

  • Driving nearly 1,300 miles can be exhausting, but it's a lot easier when you're able to keep your feet off the pedals and your hands in your lap for good chunks of it.
  • My experience gave me more confidence — but also reminded me that it'll be a while before cars can safely and reliably drive themselves.

Where it stands: You still cannot buy a self-driving car, but more than half of the 2023 auto models on the market are available with a feature that's a step in that direction: an optional active driving assistance system (ADAS).

  • ADAS technology provides steering support to keep the car within its lane and accelerates or decelerates as necessary to keep the car a set distance from the vehicle ahead. (Some systems even let drivers go hands-free for long stretches.)
  • Such systems typically work only on the highway, although each carmaker sets the boundaries for their operation.
  • The best systems, according to Consumer Reports, use a driver-monitoring camera to ensure that the driver is paying attention.
  • Active driving assistance is meant to be a convenience, not a substitute for the driver's responsibility.

What happened: I tested a 2023 Lincoln Navigator equipped with Ford's BlueCruise technology to deliver my daughter to grad school in New York City.

  • The trip was 635 miles each way, mostly along I-80 through Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
  • On the highway portions of the trip, I tried to use BlueCruise as much as possible.

Using a combination of GPS mapping and a forward-facing camera, the system advised when I was on a pre-qualified stretch of road — a "Blue Zone" — where hands-free driving was available.

  • All I had to do was push the cruise control button on the steering wheel.
  • Blue light cues appeared on both the digital instrument panel and the head-up display on the windshield.
  • A large blue steering wheel icon indicated it was OK for me to remove my hands.
  • A driver-facing camera in the instrument panel monitored my eye gaze and head position to ensure that I was looking at the road. (If you do take your eyes off the road, there will be a series of audible and visual alerts, and eventually the car will slow down.)

What I found: I was surprised by how much more relaxed my upper body felt — plus, I turned on the cooling seat massager, which helped keep me alert while eliminating pressure points.

  • Turning on the BlueCruise felt seamless and intuitive.
  • When it was time to regain control, the blue steering wheel icon changed, showing digital "hands" back on the wheel. Again, a seamless transition, with no panic.

Of note: This version of BlueCruise was better than one I tried previously.

  • But the Navigator doesn't even have the latest software, which is further enhanced with things like automatic lane-changing capability. (I've tried it on a few other Ford models.)

Yes, but: There were a few "uh-oh" moments, like when the car veered sharply, confused by freshly painted white lines that were smeared on the roadway. I had to grab the wheel quickly.

  • I found BlueCruise didn't like sunset, when the front-facing camera apparently struggled to see. Although I was in a Blue Zone, the system kept handing control back to me; as soon as darkness fell, it worked well again.
  • I-80 has a lot of hills and twists, and for the most part, BlueCruise handled them well.
  • But there are also a lot of 18-wheelers on that route, and they have a tendency to drift.

The intrigue: Autonomous trucks are coming, which could cut down on that problem.

  • And autonomous cars are starting to ply the roads: Small robotaxi fleets are tooling around a few cities, albeit with some high-profile snafus.

The bottom line: A long road trip was much better with a robot as my co-pilot.

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