Inside Mercedes’ plan to bring hands-free driving to the masses – TechCrunch

I’m sitting in The passenger seat of a private Mercedes-Benz S-Class on a bright spring day in California watches a show of an autonomous delivery robot rolling through a footpath on its way to serving someone a takeout in Santa Monica. The test driver next to me laughs as we about to merge on the highway to showcase Mercedes’ Drive Pilot, a Level 3 conditional automated driving system that consumers can order by the end of this year.

Mercedes aims to be the first automaker to bring Level 3 legal automated driving off the test track to the masses in its full-size S-Class luxury cars. The question is whether it should, especially given the challenges of the size of Everest that lie ahead – even if the opportunities The economy includes capturing a portion of the self-driving market, estimated at $220.4 billion.

The stakes are also great. The Mercedes Level 3 system has to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, including recording and exchanging huge amounts of data and giving ample time and warnings for the human driver to regain control when something goes sideways. There are legal risks that Mercedes has promised it will face when operating the system, and there are also geopolitical risks: Mercedes uses Russia’s GLONASS global positioning information system in Germany, for example.

However, Mercedes is ahead despite the risks, because the opportunity is too great to ignore. While other manufacturers such as Tesla claim to have fully autonomous drive systems, Mercedes is the first to pass required legal hurdles in the United States and Germany to offer the conditional system to consumers. While the timeline is a bit ambiguous because Mercedes is still working through those legal requirements, the system could be in the consumer lanes as soon as mid-2023.


photo credits: Abigail Bassett

In the trunk of one of four development cars parked in the garage of the Proper Hotel in Santa Monica lies a gigantic chassis of computer components. When we arrive, the trunk is open to allow the components to breathe, according to the test driver. There is no place for your coveted luggage or golf bags here.

These components record, record, manage and upload up to 2.87GB of data per minute when the vehicle is in regular operating mode. In the event of an accident while the vehicle is in motion — say, say, someone cuts off a development vehicle in traffic and forces the system to stop in a panic — the system absorbs up to 33.73 gigabytes of data so that engineers can take a closer look at what happened and improve the system.

Customers who own an S-Class equipped with Drive Pilot will not have to deal with computer components that take up boot space. Instead, some of this data will be kept on board, while much of it will be uploaded to a secure cloud system.

All of this data comes from a variety of sensors around the vehicle, a few of which will be new in future S-Class cars ordered with the new Drive Pilot system. Although the company didn’t reveal specific costs for the system, representatives said it would cost the same as the best-in-class Burmester sound system. This S-Class audio system is only a $6,700 option, but requires the addition of a separate $3,800 package, bringing the approximate total to about $10,500. That comes close to the cost of Tesla’s “full self-driving” system, which is currently a $12,000 option.

The Conditional Level 3 Drive Pilot system is based on the hardware and software used by Mercedes’ Level 2 ADAS system known as Distronic. It adds a few more advanced sensors as well as software to support the features. Key hardware systems that will be added to future S-Class vehicles configured with the Drive Pilot upgrade include an advanced lidar system developed by Valeo SA, a wheel moisture sensor well-determined for road humidity, rear cameras and microphones for emergency vehicle detection, and a special antenna array. They are located in the back of the sunroof to help pinpoint the exact GPS location.

The Valeo lidar is more advanced than what’s found in the current generation S-Class, scanning at a rate of 25 times per second over a range of 200 meters (about 650 feet). This is the second generation of the system, according to a Valeo spokesperson at the event. The system sends out lasers, which then create points in space to help the AI ​​classify the type of object in and around the vehicle’s path, whether it’s a human, animal, vehicle, tree or building. From there, the AI ​​uses data from other sensors around the vehicle to determine more than 400 different projected lanes for itself and potential lanes for vehicles, pedestrians and motorcyclists around it, and choose the safest route through.

The wetness sensor is a small, circular sound sensor positioned at the back of the front wheel well and determines how wet the road surface is. When the road is wet, drops are thrown from it, which causes an audible crackling. When the system “hears” this bird, the Drive Pilot will be disabled and the person in the driver’s seat will need to take over.

The S-Class’s rooftop antenna assembly uses a variety of different satellites to determine the exact location of a vehicle within a few centimeters. It is accurate enough to tell which lane the car is in on the highway. Mercedes says it relies on Galileo and GPS in the United States and Russia’s GLONASS system for this positioning information in Germany. These precise GPS points are integrated into a high-resolution map, which then helps the system navigate the real world.

These sensors are added to those already in the Distronic system, which includes cameras inside to ensure driver attention, as well as radar, ultrasound and 3D cameras outside. The added hardware is there to make sure each system is redundant and provides a more accurate view of both the interior and exterior of the vehicle as the system navigates the environment and, unlike Tesla’s, ensures that the driver is actually paying attention and not sleeping or watching a movie while the system is on.

There is a reason for all this precision and specialized equipment: Mercedes-Benz took responsibility, including responsibility, for the safe operation of the system. The legal repercussions can be enormous if something goes wrong and a malfunction occurs while the system is being used by the consumer.

New rules for level 3 operation

Mercedes used vehicles just like these to test Drive Pilot on more than 50,000 miles of roads in California and Nevada, where the company currently has conditional licenses to operate the system.

Once the legal hurdles are bypassed, which Mercedes says it expects to occur by the end of the year, the systems will be available in properly equipped S-Class cars, when driving in specific conditions. However, it will still be limited.

The system will only be available in states where it is legal (currently California, Nevada, and Florida). Crossing the border into Arizona or Utah, for example, with an S-Class equipped with Drive Pilot, the system wouldn’t be available. It is geographically fenced.

In addition to a state location, the system will not engage unless the vehicle is on highways, freeways, highways, or highways that are clearly defined or divided or driving in a travel lane, not an exit lane. While driving, the test driver moved to take an exit, the system was turned off and asked to take over as soon as he indicated he was changing lanes.

Even when all of these requirements are met, the system is only available at speeds up to 40 mph (60 km/h).


Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot

When DRIVE PILOT is activated, the steering wheel controls glow turquoise. picture: Mercedes Benz

Inside, the car looks almost identical to the S-Class with one major difference: on the steering wheel there are a pair of buttons located directly under the driver’s thumb. These buttons, embossed with the front image of the vehicle with the letter A at the top, are used to start the Level 3 system when external conditions are met. The lighting around the buttons and on the steering column turns white when the system is available, and turns green and blue when it is engaged.

Our short trip on Interstate 10 in Los Angeles took us downtown and back to Santa Monica. The traffic was heavy, and there were plenty of chances for the system to fail. During the first few minutes on the motorway, we encountered many obstacles on the road such as plastic bags and cardboard boxes, and more than one oblivious Angelino makes panic stops and randomly cuts off our travel lane.

In the short periods when the system was available, when all conditions were met, its operation seemed smooth. The delivery was smooth and almost unnoticeable. The driver engaged the system, taking his hands and feet off the controls, and letting the car drive itself, all the while keeping his attention on the road ahead.

The system uses maximum tracking distance when engaged, so the gap between the S-Class and the vehicle in front was quite large. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, no one decided to jump into that gap while the system was running, so we weren’t able to experience what would happen if a human suddenly changed lanes in front of the vehicle while the conditional level 3 system was running. When the system loses required information, for example, when lane markings (sometimes known as oreos) become dimmed, an audible tone will sound, and a message will appear for the driver to take over. At that point, the test driver will take control of the vehicle.

Overall, the system only ran for 10 minutes in total during our 30 minute trip. Each post was relatively short as traffic speeded to more than 40 mph, or the system lost the information needed to manage the drive. The very short flight didn’t give us enough time to assess the system, but it did provide a glimpse into how Level 3 autonomy might work in the very near future. However, the real question is how the system will behave in the hands of customers – and whether even the wealthy will buy the technology.

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