A handful of vehicles now offer motorists the opportunity to go hands-free under limited conditions, but Mercedes-Benz plans to take things the next step by becoming the first to introduce Level 3 autonomy in California this year.
The system just got approval in Nevada.
The Drive Pilot system will allow motorists not only to go hands-free but turn their attention to texting, making calls, even watching videos, which is a step beyond what technologies such as General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving allow.
The automaker announced the rollout plans at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It made a number of other announcements on Wednesday, including plans to launch a global EV charging network of its own, and a number of partnerships aimed at enhancing its in-car entertainment.
Mercedes introduced its Drive Pilot system in Germany last year. Competing technologies, like GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise, fall into the Level 2 category of autonomy. They can be operated hands-free in areas that have been carefully mapped — and usually only under specific conditions. Motorists must keep their eyes on the road and be ready to retake control immediately in an emergency, or if the vehicle drives beyond the mapped area.
Level 3 systems, such as Drive Pilot, also may be operated hands-free, but the driver can turn their attention to other things, such as texting or even watching video on a car’s touchscreen. They still must be ready to retake control in an emergency.
Drive Pilot currently is focused on use during relatively low-speed commutes — up to 60 kmh, or 37 mph. But Mercedes officials told TheDetroitBureau.com during a test drive of the system they hope to allow it to operate at higher speeds as they gather more data and gain more confidence.
Even at such low speeds, the system “gives customers back time so they can focus on certain secondary activities such as communicating with colleagues via In-Car Office, browsing the web or relaxing while watching a movie,” the automaker said in a statement.
The precise time of the U.S. Drive Pilot launch has yet to be confirmed and will come once the technology is approved by authorities in Nevada and California. Other parts of the country may follow but Mercedes engineers told TheDetroitBureau.com they must program the underlying software to adjust for individual state rules and regulations.
During its CES presentation, Mercedes also announced it will expand the capabilities of its active cruise control technology. A select line of models will allow drivers the ability to automatically pass slower traffic while cruise is activated, simply by tapping the turn signal. Once the Mercedes passes the slower vehicle it automatically will steer back into its lane.
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Mercedes had a busy day during the opening news conferences at CES 2023. Among other things, the automaker announced plans to set up its own branded EV charging network in three of the world’s largest markets for battery-electric vehicles. That will begin with the U.S. this year, Europe and China to follow.
The long-term goal is to have 10,000 chargers in place worldwide by the end of the decade, Mercedes said. In the U.S. and Canada, the target is 400 individual “hubs,” with 2,500 “high-power chargers” in place by 2027.
In terms of in-car entertainment, that’s a big topic at CES 2023. Among other things, the Sony Honda Mobility joint venture on Wednesday night announced plans to introduce an all-new brand, Afeela, in 2025. Its high-tech cars will feature higher levels of automation, creating a synergy with Sony’s extensive entertainment holdings.
Mercedes also had some big in-car entertainment announcements to make at CES. That includes new partnerships with Apple Music and the Universal Music Group, as well as entertainment brand Superplastic.
“In-car entertainment today is much more than a high-end stereo system,” said Magnus Östberg, chief software officer at Mercedes-Benz Group AG. “A typical top-of-the-line S-Class or EQS will most likely be equipped with a Burmester High-End 4D-surround sound system with 39 speakers, plus the Hyperscreen. Not to mention all the hardware and software to make it work together. This is how we at Mercedes-Benz create desire: seamlessly combining technology to amaze the user. For this, we look to both inside our organization as well as to valued external partners who can bring new innovations to our vehicles.”