There are few things more frustrating than getting stuck in rush hour traffic, a mix of sheer boredom punctuated by the occasional moment of panic. But what if you could use that time to relax, letting your car deal with all the hassles of driving?
That’s the idea behind the new Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot. The system is one of a growing number of technologies coming to market in the push for true hands-free driving. But it’s the first to reach what is technically known as “Level 3” autonomy. According to Mercedes, Drive Pilot can handle virtually anything a human driver would at speeds up to 37 mph, allowing a motorist to relax, even watch videos on the car’s infotainment screen.
To get a feel for what Drive Pilot is really like to use, I headed over to the automaker’s sprawling proving ground in Immendingen, a couple hours’ drive from Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. After a quick briefing on the new technology, I climbed behind the wheel of a new S-Class sedan equipped with the Drive Pilot system and headed out onto the automaker’s long oval test track.
Trial by fire
While Drive Pilot has just gone on sale in Germany and will now get its test by fire on public roads, the automaker chose to demonstrate the system on the test track where it could quickly demonstrate all the various situations Drive Pilot has been programmed to handle. That’s no mean feat. According to automotive experts, the typical driver will make hundreds of decisions during even the shortest commutes: whether to speed up or slow down, when to change lanes, and how to get out of the way when an emergency vehicle approaches.
That was the first challenge I faced — or, more precisely, the first situation Drive Pilot dealt with as a siren warned of an ambulance approaching from the rear. Before I even had the chance to think about what to do, my S-Class sedan slowed to a stop, steering off to the right shoulder, helping create an emergency lane for the ambulance to pass through — as required by German law. Once the responder passed, the big sedan started rolling again.
During the next 15 minutes, we’d run into a variety of scenarios one could expect during a daily commute. The sedan sped up or slowed down to keep pace with surrounding traffic. When another car abruptly cut into my lane it smoothly performed an evasive maneuver. And, as we came to a complete stop, it blew the horn without my prompting when the car in front unexpectedly shifted into reverse.
Pretty much anything I might have done to deal with the situation, Drive Pilot handled on its own — and often before I even realized there was a potential problem. Almost everything. For one thing, the new system isn’t permitted to change lanes to get around a traffic tie-up. And Drive Pilot also has been programmed to disable itself in wet or snowy weather.
Drive Pilot occasionally required me to tap the “OK” button on the steering wheel to confirm that I was ready to take over control of the vehicle in an emergency. When I was slow to respond, it would trigger various warnings, even vigorously shaking my shoulder belt. If I still didn’t act, my Mercedes co-pilot explained, the system would have pulled off towards the shoulder, slowed to a stop and even put out a call for help, in case I had become incapacitated.
Competition heats up
As I mentioned earlier, Drive Pilot is just one of numerous semi-autonomous technologies coming to market. At their most basic, systems like the Nissan ProPilot help you hold to the center of your lane and maintain a safe distance from traffic ahead. Ford’s BlueCruise can operate hands-free on up to 100,000 miles of limited-access highways in the U.S., and General Motors’ Super Cruise doubles that to more than 200,000, with the newest version also capable of automatically changing lanes when it gets behind a slower vehicle.
Easily the best-known system is Tesla’s Autopilot. But while the automaker has dubbed the latest iteration “Full Self-Driving,” that’s a significant overstatement. For one thing, you still need to maintain at least a light grip on the steering wheel.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently promised a true hands-free system will be out by the end of 2022 — but he’s been making the same promise for some years. Mercedes’ Drive Pilot is the first to reach Level 3 autonomy.
To be clear, you won’t be able to lay back your seat and snooze on the way to work. The system still requires you to remain at the ready — and, as I discovered, it will ask you to respond if the driver monitoring system thinks you’re distracted. But Drive Pilot will let you do things like checking texts or watching videos as long as it thinks you’re reasonably aware of your surroundings.
U.S. next to get Drive Pilot
Like the Tesla, GM and Ford systems, Mercedes plans to offer regular improvements to Drive Pilot using the vehicle’s smartphone-style over-the-air update technology. The ability to make automatic lane changes is one upgrade under study.
For now, Drive Pilot is only available for the German market, regulators there approving its use earlier this year. But Mercedes plans to introduce the technology in the States, and expects to have it available in California around the end of this year, with Nevada next on its list.
One of the challenges is programming the software to follow local traffic laws which, in the U.S., can vary from state to state. Nevada, for example, requires drivers to move over and provide an open lane when passing a parked police car, ambulance or fire truck.
How it works
While a human driver depends on eyes and ears to cope with traffic, Drive Pilot relies on a “sensor fusion.” To meet Level 3 standards, Mercedes becomes the first automaker to lidar, a high-definition laser imaging technology, in a production vehicle. It’s paired with an assortment of cameras, radar and sonar sensors mounted all around the vehicle.
The system constantly compares the input from the various sensors and will hand control back to the human driver if there’s conflict.
Initially, the technology will be offered on two flagship Mercedes-Benz sedans. On the S-Class it costs 5,000 euros — about $5,130 at current exchange rates. On the automaker’s all-electric flagship, the EQS, it goes for 7,430 euros, or $7,620. Pricing for the U.S. market will be announced closer to the launch of Drive Pilot here.