The new Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot system will become the first hands-free Level 3 autonomous driving system available in the U.S. when it goes on sale by the second half of the year, the automaker confirmed today.
The technology, which is already available in Germany, goes beyond other semi-autonomous systems already on the market, such as Tesla’s Autopilot and General Motors’ Super Cruise, allowing a driver to not only take their hands off the steering wheel but shift focus away from the road. That would include texting, making hands-on cellphone calls and even watching videos on the vehicle’s infotainment screen.
For now, however, Drive Pilot will only operate at speeds up to 40 mph. And only Nevada has so far formally approved its use, though Mercedes officials said they are waiting for final authorization from California regulators, as well.
“A whole new experience”
A technology like Drive Pilot “enables a whole new experience in your car,” Markus Schäfer, the Mercedes board member in charge of technology, said during a media roundtable. “You will have time to do something else.”
The auto industry, as a whole, has been racing to bring self-driving technology to market, with the ultimate goal of allowing vehicles to operate entirely without a driver under all weather and road conditions. In tech parlance, that is known as Level 5 autonomy. Some more limited Level 4 systems — which can operate without a driver, but only under limited conditions in “geofenced” locations — are already being developed by companies like robocab companies Cruise and Waymo.
But full autonomy, particularly at a price the typical driver can afford, has been far more elusive than industry officials predicted just a few years ago. In the meantime, manufacturers are rolling out more limited technologies like Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, as well as GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise.
Not quite autonomous
Despite widespread public perception, Tesla’s technologies still require a driver’s hands to remain on the wheel, albeit with a light grip. The Ford and GM systems can be used fully hands-free under optimal conditions on roads that have been mapped in extremely high definition. But these “Level 2+” technologies still require a driver to remain focused on the road, ready to retake control in an instant. Driver monitoring systems will flash a warning and ultimately pull over the vehicle if drivers become distracted or disabled.
For now, Drive Pilot will only be operable at relatively low speeds — up to 40 mph — meaning it will primarily assist drivers facing heavy traffic on interstates and some other divided highways. The system is designed to recognize and respond to traffic signals and signs. It also keeps a digital ear out for emergency vehicles and can maneuver out of the way to let them pass. Additional sensors will disable the system in bad weather.
But, while operating, Drive Pilot will permit a motorist to shift their attention elsewhere, as long as they remain awake and alert. They will be able to find other ways to occupy the passing time, including watching videos or texting.
New revenue opportunities
Automakers like Mercedes see that as a significant opportunity to generate new revenues, in fact. During a news conference at the CES 2023 earlier this month the automaker announced a number of tie-ups aimed at delivering audio and video content to the vehicle. That included 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,” Chief Software Officer Magnus Östberg said during that event. The goal is “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.”
By some estimates, the industry could generate tens of billions of dollars annually by providing in-car entertainment and other connected car services. That’s on top of the fees to purchase and operate technologies like Drive Pilot.
Following the CES news conference, Mercedes officials said they plan to seek regulatory approval to use Drive Pilot in other parts of the U.S. But they will need to revise its operating system to reflect the fact that the rules of the road vary from state to state. They would not say what locations they plan to target next.
The automaker did not disclose how much it plans to charge for Drive Pilot in the U.S. In Germany, that ranges from 5,000 to 7,430 euros, depending upon the vehicle — or $5,432 to $8,072 at current exchange rates.