Cadillac introduces a fancy digital experience in its luxury cars (test drive)

Cadillac is all about luxury, so the digital experience inside its newest cars is naturally quite amazing. I got to take the new Cadillac XTS sedan for a test drive, and it was a pretty cool experience.

The car has CUE, or the Cadillac User Experience. It encompasses the central display in the middle of the dashboard as well as instrument displays directly behind the wheel. It also includes a heads-up display that projects onto the lower part of the car’s windshield. It’s kind of a space-age experience, dubbed “car infotainment,” that gives us a glimpse of the future of cars and technology.

The central screen has an 8-inch capacitive liquid crystal display touchscreen with haptic (touch) feedback that gives you a tactile response to confirm that you hit a button on the screen. So you can swipe up to access a menu and swipe sideways to scroll through the it. It’s a lot like the controls for an iPad. Overall, the experience is an elegant collection of things that General Motors created for the Cadillac, married to external technologies such as your iPhone or Android device.

“There’s a ton of firsts going on in this car that have never been done in the industry,” said Alfred Tom, part of GM’s connected vehicle group, during our test drive. “We put an awful lot of emphasis into making it easy to use.”

CUE lets you call up your favorite radio stations with the press of a button, whether they are AM, FM, or satellite radio stations. You can also call up favorite phone numbers. You can store locations on the screen favorites. Altogether you can have as many as 60 different favorites that you can reach with one or two finger gestures. Points of interest can include any locations, like your home and work addresses, the best gas station, the nearest grocery store, and other places that you go to often. If Starbucks is your favorite coffee place, you can tap on the Starbucks favorite button and it will call up the nearest places.

It has a 1.8-litre storage bin under the dashboard, and you can plug in a universal serial bus (USB) device into it. That way, you can charge an iPhone or tap its music collection from the dashboard screen.

The screen lets you quickly access audio, phone, navigation, Pandora, and other apps. Altogether, the screen lets you quickly access your five most-used applications. An Android phone can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth, while an iPhone can connect via USB. Through the phone’s 4G data plan, you can access entertainment applications such as Pandora.

You can access the phone’s contact list (using the vCard format) on the display screen. If you have a photo of your contact stored, the image of the person will come up when you dial that person from the car, or when they call your phone when you are in the car.

Navigation works particularly well with CUE. If you have a map showing you turn-by-turn navigation, the lower part of the menu will fade out and disappear if your finger isn’t near it. (It uses a proximity sensor to detect if your finger is there or not). This gives you a bigger map screen to view, helping you navigate better by minimizing distractions. You can pinch and zoom (pictured above) on the 3D map to focus on a particular spot on the map. Points of interest, weather, and your Onstar safety system are also easily accessible.

A small map screen is visible within the dashboard, behind the driver’s wheel (pictured left), so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road and look at the 8-inch screen. That makes for safer driving. The cluster of guages inside the dashboard is also reconfigurable so it displays the information you want most.

The navigation map also shows up in the heads-up display on the windshield, so you don’t have to look down at all. The heads-up display is projected from below the dashboard onto the special glass, and it doesn’t obstruct your view of anything in front of you. If you get an incoming call, you can see the caller in the heads-up display and can use voice commands if you want to answer the call.

You can operate the phone or the maps with your own voice, if you prefer not to touch the screen. It is natural voice recognition (via Nuance), so you can say, “Play Michael Jackson” or “I want to listen to 99.5.” You don’t have to train the system, and it can recognize any voice.

Right now, you can’t upgrade your apps and download new ones into the car. Cadillac wants to vet the apps before it puts them into the car. Sometime down the road, it might be possible to change the apps. But that introduces new problems. You might make a case for Yelp. But should you really be allowed to watch YouTube on an 8-inch screen in the front seat? GM is testing apps to make sure they can be used while driving. At some point, GM is going to seek more app developers.

At the center of CUE is a powerful three-core ARM11-based processor. Those three cores can be applied to tasks such as voice recognition if necessary. It’s not a cheap car, with options ranging from $44,075 to $61,805. But that’s Cadillac. CUE comes standard in the car.

Tom walked in front of the car as we were stopped in traffic. My seat buzzed. I thought it was my phone. He walked past the car again. And the seat buzzed again. This warning below my butt was telling me that I better pay attention because there was a pedestrian directly in front of my car. Tom walked behind the car and the same buzzing feeling hit me. The car has its own back-up camera, which shows the view directly behind the car when you shift into reverse. But the buzzing in my butt definitely grabbed my attention. If you make a lane change, the seat buzzer comes on in case you’re actually falling asleep. They call it a “haptic safety seat.”

The car has automated safety features such as adaptive forward lighting. That casts the light of the headlamps in the right direction based on your speed and steering.