Want to catch a couple of extra minutes of sleep on your way to work in the morning? There’s a race underway to see which automaker can come up with the first fully autonomous driving technology. And Mercedes-Benz may have just jumped into the lead.
Traffic is heavy on this muggy afternoon in Southern Germany and, as I creep along, my Mercedes-Benz S-Class suddenly veers off toward the shoulder of the road before jerking to a stop. Only as I pause to figure out what has happened do I hear the first faint sound of a siren racing up behind me. The big Benz had already spotted the emergency responder and helped create a gap for it to get through.
Mercedes Drive Pilot
Give credit to the new Drive Pilot technology the S-Class is equipped with. According to the German automaker, it’s the first so-called Level 3 autonomous technology authorized for use on public roads by a retail vehicle anywhere in the world.
That official designation means it’s capable of completely taking control of a vehicle at low speeds, though motorists must still be ready to retake control at a moment’s notice. While a driver won’t be allowed to fall asleep while using the system — at least not yet — they will be able to do things like watch a movie or stream video on the car’s infotainment screen.
“As a first step, we are offering this world-leading technology in Germany in the S-Class and the EQS. At the same time, we also want to receive certification in the US by the end of the year,” said Britta Seeger, member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Group AG, responsible for marketing and sales.
Hands-free driving has long been the stuff of science fiction. It’s now becoming reality, albeit at a lower pace than many industry experts had promised a decade ago.
A handful of ride-share companies, such as General Motors’ San Francisco-based Cruise subsidiary, as well as Google spin-off Waymo, have begun testing fully driverless vehicles. But these prototypes are far beyond what retail customers could afford and have significant technical limitations.
For the average motorist, there are a number of more limited options.
Some, like Nissan’s ProPilot, help you stay centered in your lane while maintaining the pace of surrounding traffic. GM and Ford — with their Super Cruise and Blue Cruise systems — allow hands-free operation on some limited-access highways, though drivers need to keep their eyes on the road and be ready to take over control immediately if needed.
Tesla, meanwhile, continues to promise true full self-driving is just around the corner. But it keeps setting back the arrival date and, for now, its Autopilot still needs a driver’s hands on the wheel.
With Mercedes, that day has arrived, though Drive Pilot still has significant restrictions. Among other things, it can only be used up to 37 mph, but that’s the sort of traffic millions of commuters cope with every day.
The system won’t operate when it’s raining or snowing. And it can be confounded by bright glare, forcing it to hand back control.
No Sleeping Behind the Wheel — Yet
And while a driver can take their eyes off the road for a while, Drive Pilot still monitors the motorist, among other things, to make sure they are still alert. Fall asleep and it will buzz you back to consciousness and then, if you fail to respond, it will slow down, pull over and even call for emergency responders.
In my case, as the emergency vehicle blows by, my S-Class comes back to life and starts moving forward again, its speed ebbing and flowing with surrounding traffic. At one point, as we come to another stop, the car in front of me suddenly shifts into reverse to try to change lanes. Just before it slams into my front end, Drive Pilot blows the horn, completely on its own.
Over the next little while, the system responds to any number of problems one might expect to face during a morning’s commute. In this case, it all happens on the long test track at the Mercedes-Benz proving grounds a couple of hours south of the automaker’s headquarters in Stuttgart.
But the first retail sedans equipped with Drive Pilot have just arrived in German showrooms and are being delivered to customers.
Drive Pilot: How It Works
Unlike the heavily modified prototypes being used by Cruise and Waymo, you’d have to look closely to see any difference between these and conventional versions of Mercedes’ flagship sedan — which already is loaded up with a variety of sensors to track surrounding traffic.
The first clue can be found on the upper part of the windshield where a larger stereo camera setup tracks what’s happening on the road ahead. There are additional and upgraded cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors all over the sedan, as well. And Drive Pilot brings the first retail use of LIDAR, a high-definition laser imaging technology.
Add high-resolution navigation maps that can track the vehicle’s location down to the inch, rather than yards like conventional navi systems. The system relies on “sensor fusion,” where the various devices back each other up — and must agree on what they’re seeing or Drive Pilot will hand control back to the driver.
During my time behind the wheel, I found the technology to be reasonably effective. It kept me precisely in my lane and tracking with the speed of surrounding traffic.
It took evasive action when another vehicle suddenly cut me off and, in general, handled traffic much as I would. At times, it picked up a potential fender-bender before I knew what was happening.
But when my lane came to a stop, I had to manually take control to move over. And Drive Pilot frequently asked me to hit the “OK” button on the steering wheel to be sure I was ready to take control, if need be. When I didn’t respond quickly enough it escalated the alerts, even shaking my seatbelt to get my attention.
So, even though Drive Pilot generally did what it promised, I found the system did little to really let me relax behind the wheel. I was either responding to its queries or remaining alert to retake control, if needed.
Autonomous Driving Upgrades Coming
Mercedes officials say they intend to continue upgrading the technology — and they can upload next-gen software using smartphone-style over-the-air updates. The goal is to add more functionality and reduce the need for drivers to retake control.
The carmaker is also prepping to introduce Drive Pilot to the U.S. But that creates a number of challenges. Unlike in Europe, roadway regulations vary substantially from state to state. Some require drivers to move a full lane over, for example, when passing a parked police car or other emergency responder.
Still, Mercedes hopes to have Drive Pilot ready to launch in California late this year, with Nevada to follow. It will then look for other opportunities. Since it currently shuts off when the weather’s bad, expect the initial focus to be on warm, dry parts of the U.S.
The Drive Pilot system costs 5,000 euros — about $5,130 at current exchange rates — on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It’s also available for the all-electric EQS sedan at 7,430 euros, or $7,620. U.S. pricing has yet to be announced.