A system enabling Level 3 automated driving can be ordered for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class electric and classic. At the moment only on German motorways and in broad daylight.
And a piece of the future to begin anew, for Mercedes it is a new milestone in the history of the traditional company. For the first time and currently only in Germany, a car manufacturer has received the blessing of the state to install a system in a production car with which the driver can hand over responsibility for everyday traffic to technology. Until now, people were supported by various assistance systems in many modern cars, but they were only allowed to let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds. Now helpers are turning into machines that can take over with the push of a button. The main topic is daily frustration in highway traffic jams.
“We want to give our customers back some of their valuable time,” explains George Massing, vice president in charge of automated driving in the Mercedes management team. Drive Pilot takes over the driver’s activities on the highway, such as steering, braking, staying in lane, or accelerating. With all this, he doesn’t even have to be particularly vigilant. Because as long as the complex system is in control, people can relax and focus on other tasks. “The issue of liability is the primary issue. We are now sure that we, and above all our customers, are on the safe side,” says Massing.
Sensors, cameras, radar, ultrasound and lidar
First encounter with the part-time invisible captain on the always crowded Berlin Ring Road, the queue of all the regular cars pushes rather slowly over the asphalt. When integrated into running traffic, the system remains in the co-pilot role. More than 30 sensors, different cameras, radar eyes, ultrasound or lidar, a combination of laser and radar, monitor what is happening around the black S-Class and feed data to the on-board computer. In the central instrument behind the steering wheel, a flock of rectangles appears moving around the car icon, as in a video game. These are all cars about Mercedes. Welcome to the hustle and bustle of a German motorway near the city.
Then the shaft increases in speed, disintegrating a little. The letter “A” appears in the instrument panel, which prompts the driver to press one of the two buttons located within the reach of the thumb on the steering wheel. A green light immediately indicates the turning point, as if the car wanted to say: “Now I’m driving, I’m sitting.” Of course, some kind of uneasiness arises at first. Stuck between a pickup truck on the left and a big truck in the right lane heading gently to the left. The scorpions involuntarily approach the edge of the steering wheel from the resting place in the groin area. But the tension gives way faster than expected, although it has yet to subside. But the supremacy with which the luxury car moves in the hustle and bustle is reassuring.
To enjoy the new freedom of irresponsibility, stock quotes or the latest news can now be read on the large central screen with the help of a browser, or the mobile phone can be used without the hands-free system. With high computer performance and good online connectivity, it will also be possible to stream your favorite series, but you can also watch the S-Bahn easily skip the traffic to the right of the highway. The distance to the vehicle in front of you also increases. Because others are only faster and don’t have a programmed top speed. The automatic Mercedes remains in Tempo 60, which is the law and a prerequisite for Drive Pilot approval.
“Traffic jams are our hot spot,” explains engineer Taner Kandemir, “During our test drive we spent 200,000 hours in traffic jams.” It can live with the current limit of 60 km/h because it covers the long convoy driving area with constant stop-and-go, which often stresses customers in daily life and requires their constant vigilance. But the speed brake isn’t the only limitation that future customers will have to accept, as they will have to pay an additional fee of €5950 for the S-Class or €8,840 for Germany’s noble Stromer EQS. Drive Pilot works only on the highway, and cannot yet change lanes, for example when overtaking. Defensive driving is part of the programme.
The system only works when visibility is good
The system also refuses to operate at night, in tunnels, in heavy rain or snow, or on construction sites, since camera eyes always require a good view. But it can also be a role model for other traffic participants. If there is a danger of deadlock, this S-Class is the rescue lane leader. If the sensors, which also monitor the driver, detect a medical condition or worse, the vehicle is carefully stopped in its lane and help is automatically called. “The traffic in the back was warned that our car was about to stop,” says Taner Kandemir. For a medical examination, the camera also measures the frequency of eyelid blinking, which is a reliable indicator of health.
Admittedly, the added value of the Drive Pilot is still manageable at the current stage, as strict regulations from the authorities as well as the latest technology put a brake on potential vanity on the part of engineers. However, a system is entering into serial production for the first time making driver responsibility an issue, and it has been researched and developed by 1,000 fine specialists in various departments at Mercedes for a long time. After all, the car manufacturer must be held liable if the technology causes damage.
Sometimes it’s the small steps with the big technology that make you move forward. Everyone in Stuttgart is happy: Germany is finally back in the world leadership.