Imagine that you are driving on the highway, and you are approaching almost stopped traffic. When your car’s speed drops to 35 mph, the buttons on the edge of the steering wheel light up a greenish-blue. Press either, and the vehicle is instantly in complete control of driving through bumper-to-bumper congestion. You can casually take your hands off the steering wheel and take your eyes off the road safely – and legally – replying to text messages, email, or watching videos. Once traffic opens again, the buttons on the steering wheel light up white, telling you that you must take back control and continue your journey.
I am not describing science fiction or some distant theoretical technology. Instead, this is the Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, a Level 3 vehicle autonomy system that is the world’s first internationally validated conditional automated driving system – currently offered in Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS models in the German market, and it’s coming To the US market soon. I recently had the opportunity to test the Drive Pilot at the company’s R&D center in Germany.
As a refresher, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of drive automation on a scale ranging from 0 (completely manual) to 5 (completely autonomous). Most vehicles have a basic “cruise control” to hold the set speed, which qualifies as Level 1. “Adaptive cruise control” or “advanced driver assistance systems” (ADAS) use cameras and radars (or designated roads) to maintain the speed range in traffic and maintain On the car inside the track. This is called Level 2 (examples include Tesla Autopilot, GM’s SuperCruise, and Ford’s BlueCruise).
The jump to Level 3 may seem insignificant from a human perspective, but it’s significant from a technological point of view. This is because Level 3 vehicles need “environmental detection” capabilities – they must be able to interpret the actions of other vehicles and surroundings and make informed decisions for themselves (for example, stopping when approaching emergency vehicles or modifying driving style for inclement weather). In addition, Level 3 systems allow automation to take over specific driving tasks as long as the driver is alert and ready to resume control on demand (driver controls do not disappear until SAE Level 5).
The Drive Pilot is a suite of cameras, radars, sensors, microphones and processors based on the current Mercedes-Benz Driving Assistance Package. Upgrades include LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensing and dedicated microphones to pick up the sound of wet pavement and approaching emergency vehicles. In addition, Drive Pilot uses an HD map to receive information about the track profile, road geometry, traffic lights, and unusual traffic events (such as accidents or roadworks). The HD map is updated via a rear connection, so the car always uses the latest update.
In addition to high-accuracy sensors and mapping, Drive Pilot includes a high-accuracy GPS – more efficient than conventional GPS systems. The exact satellite location is put on HD maps and then verified by data from LiDAR, cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors. Using all of its “senses” allows Drive Pilot to know exactly where a vehicle is based on characteristics of the road, buildings, road geometry, landmarks, and even traffic lights.
The vehicle translates a 3D HD map, confirming the received data with the stored data (each Drive Pilot vehicle records and stores images and then uploads them to a data center to ensure they are accurate and up-to-date). And of course, all data sent and received is strictly protected using sophisticated security algorithms.
Today, Mercedes-Benz offers the Drive Pilot in S-Class and EQS models. Interestingly, these compounds – one combustion and the other pure EV – have a completely different mechanical structure. The EQS features innovative (and redundant) digital architecture, while the S-Class is more traditional (mechanical) in its systems. As a result, Mercedes fits S-Class models with the complementary steering and braking system, and the car boasts an on-board electrical backup system as a redundancy in the event of a system failure.
One day, automated driving will be possible at nearly all speeds, but getting to that point is a challenge (technical and legislative). As of today, Drive Pilot has been approved for speeds up to 60 km/h (37 mph) by the German Federal Transport Authority (KBA), paving the way for approval in other countries (eg, the US Department of Transportation on our website beaches). While this might sound a bit slow, look at the speedometer the next time you’re stuck in traffic—the most frustrating congestion occurs at less than 30 mph.
To try out its Drive Pilot system, Mercedes-Benz put me behind the wheel of a fitted S-Class without any prior instructions – confidently demonstrating how easy the system is to use. The test was conducted on a high-speed, multi-track elliptical at the company’s Expanded Research and Development Center in Emendingen, Germany. With no expense spared, the automaker hired dozens of drivers to operate a variety of vehicles (for example, cars, tractor trailers, ambulances, etc.)
As in the real world, I was instructed to approach the group of slowly moving vehicles (“traffic”) at about 60 mph. As I approached, I applied the brakes to about 30 mph to match my speed to the car driving directly in front of you in my lane, and Drive Pilot lit blue buttons on each side of the steering wheel—and told me the system was ready to go. With a simple press, the Drive Pilot was active, and I removed my hand from the steering wheel and removed my foot off the pedals (in addition to the blue lights, the driver is well aware of the array of displays on the dashboard and head-up screen).
My S-Class followed the vehicle in front, accelerating and braking automatically to keep the gap. This lasted for a moment before other drivers started running through potential real-world scenarios – erratic driving, people blocking the road, etc. his position. Another made an abrupt lane change, cutting the S-Class lane, and Mercedes again pressed precisely to avoid the collision. Then the driver in front of me stopped abruptly – the Drive Pilot stopped quickly in time. Then the driver began to climb into the front of my car. The driving pilot, alerting and realizing this was unusual, sounded my car horn!
Two more tests demonstrated the advanced Drive Pilot systems. First, an approaching ambulance appeared in the rearview mirror, approaching our group of traffic. Drive Pilot alerted me, and the S-Class moved safely to the side to let it pass. Along the way, a worker on the highway was guiding people away from the obstacle. Drive Pilot slows down, notices the person on the road, and navigates safely around the danger.
There is a lot of repetition for safety’s sake. If the Drive Pilot system is confused, the blue buttons light up in red – and the driver relinquishes control of the car again. However, if Drive Pilot chooses to hand control of the vehicle to the driver and does not respond (for example, due to a health issue), the system will signal with red-lit buttons, apply the brakes, and safely slow the vehicle to a complete stop in a controlled manner. It will simultaneously activate the vehicle’s hazard warning lights and summon assistance via the Mercedes-Benz Emergency Call System (to assist first responders, Drive Pilot will also open the vehicle’s doors and windows).
Drive Pilot is more advanced than other autonomous systems I’ve tested. While the Tesla’s autopilot is impressive at first glance, the Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot offers several other layers of safety and capability. The Mercedes system interface is more transparent (for example, the head-up display shows the driver what the Drive Pilot is about to do), and relies on a more comprehensive set of sensors and cameras to provide all-weather capability and redundancy. It only takes a few minutes to learn how it works. By the end of the test, I trusted him completely – I took out my phone and took some pictures!
As mentioned, the Drive Pilot is coming to the US market soon. Mercedes-Benz plans to test the system on our roads in early 2023, and hopes to obtain certification shortly thereafter. It can’t come soon – it will make my daily commute a safer and more enjoyable experience.