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Inside Mercedes’ ambition to make hands-free driving accessible to the general public

driving

On a blindingly sunny California spring day, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a customized Mercedes Benz S-Class, casually watching an autonomous delivery robot roll through a crosswalk on its way to deliver someone’s takeaway lunch in Santa Monica. As we prepare to merge onto the highway for a demonstration of Mercedes’ Drive Pilot system, a conditional Level 3 automated driving system that consumers may be able to order by the end of the year, the test driver next to me chuckles.

Mercedes-Benz wants to be the first automaker to make legal Level 3 autonomous driving available to the general public in its full-size luxury S-Class vehicles. The question is whether it should, given the mountainous obstacles that lie ahead — even if the financial incentives include a slice of the anticipated $220.4 billion autonomous driving industry.

The stakes are very enormous. The Mercedes Level 3 system must take numerous responsibilities at the same time, including as recording and transferring large amounts of data and providing adequate time and warnings for the human driver to regain control when something goes wrong. There are legal risks, which Mercedes has stated it will take when the system is engaged, as well as geopolitical dangers: Mercedes, for example, employs the Russian GLONASS system for global location information in Germany.

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Despite the risks, Mercedes is forging ahead because the potential is simply too great to pass up. While other manufacturers, such as Tesla, claim to have completely autonomous driving systems, Mercedes is the first to clear the necessary legal obstacles in the United States and Germany to offer consumers the conditional system. While the exact date is unknown because Mercedes is still working out the legalities, the system might be in users’ hands and driveways as early as mid-2023.

The advancement of technology

A massive chassis of computer components rests in the trunk of one of the four development vehicles parked in the Proper Hotel’s garage in Santa Monica. According to the test driver, the trunk is open when we arrive to allow the components to air. There isn’t enough room here for your prized golf bags or luggage.

When the car is in normal operation, these components register, record, manage, and upload up to 2.87 GB of data each minute. If an incident driving occurs while the vehicle is in motion, such as when someone cuts off the development vehicle in traffic and prompts a panic stop, the system can take up to 33.73 terabytes of data, allowing engineers to investigate the situation and enhance the system.

Customers who purchase an S-Class with the Drive Pilot system will not have to worry about computer components taking up valuable trunk space. Instead, the vehicle will continue to be present in the automobiles in order for the Level 3 system to work and collect and store enormous amounts of data. Some of the data will be kept on board, but the majority will be sent to a secure cloud system.

This information is gathered by a variety of sensors located throughout the vehicle, some of which will be new to future S-Class vehicles equipped with the new Drive Pilot system. While the business wouldn’t reveal how much the system will cost, reps said it will be comparable to their top-of-the-line Burmester audio system. The S-audio Class’s system is a $6,700 option on its own, but it requires an additional $3,800 package, bringing the total to about $10,500. That’s approaching the cost of Tesla’s “Full-Self Driving” system, which costs $12,000 right now.

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The conditional Level 3 Drive Pilot system is based on the same technology and software as Mercedes’ Distronic Level 2 ADAS system. It has a few more advanced sensors as well as software to handle the new features. An advanced driving LiDAR system developed by Valeo SA, a wetness sensor in the wheel well to determine moisture on the road, rear-facing cameras and microphones to detect emergency vehicles, and a special antenna array located at the rear of the sunroof to help with precise GPS location are all key hardware systems that will be added to future S-Class vehicles configured with the Drive Pilot upgrade.

The Valeo LiDAR systems is more advanced than the one found on the current generation of S-Classes, scanning at a rate of 25 times per second across a 200-meter range (approximately 650-plus feet). According to a Valeo spokeswoman during the ceremony, this is the system’s second generation. The system fires lasers, which produce points in space that the AI may use to classify the type of thing in the vehicle’s path, whether it’s a human, animal, vehicle, tree, or building. The AI then analyses data from the car’s other sensors to calculate over 400 distinct predicted courses for itself as well as probable paths for vehicles, pedestrians, and motorcyclists in the area, and chooses the safest path through.

The wetness sensor is a small circular acoustic sensor located behind the front driver’s wheel well that determines how wet the road is. Droplets are flung up against the road when it is wet, making an auditory patter. Drive Pilot will be disabled when the system “hears” that patter, and the human in the driver’s seat will have to take over.

The antenna array on the S-roof Class’s employs a variety of satellites to pinpoint the vehicle’s exact location to within a few centimetres. It’s precise enough to tell which lane a vehicle is in on the highway. Mercedes claims to rely on driving Galileo and GPS in the United States, as well as the Russian GLONASS system in Germany, for positioning data. These precise GPS coordinates are subsequently incorporated into a high-definition map, which aids the system in navigating the real world.

These sensors join the Distronic system’s existing sensors, which include internal cameras to ensure that the driver is paying attention, as well as radar, ultrasonic, and 3D cameras outdoors. The additional hardware ensures that 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. It also ensures that, unlike the Tesla system, the driver is actually paying attention and not sleeping or watching a movie while operating the system.

There’s a rationale for all of this sophisticated and precise gear. Mercedes-Benz has assumed responsibility for the system’s safe operation, including liabilities. Should something go wrong and the system break while a customer is using it, the legal repercussions might be enormous.

Level 3 operation has new rules.

Mercedes has tested its Drive Pilot system on more than 50,000 miles of road in California and Nevada, where the company presently has conditional licences to operate the system.

The technologies will be available on fully equipped S-Class vehicles, when driven in particular conditions, once the legal hurdles are cleared, which Mercedes anticipates to happen by the end of the year. It will, however, be limited.

Only states where it is lawful will be able to use the system (California, Nevada, and Florida currently). If you drive an S-Class equipped with Drive Pilot across the border into Arizona or Utah, the system will not work. It’s encircled by a geofence.

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In addition to the state, the system will not engage unless the vehicle is travelling in a travelling lane, not an exit lane, on clearly defined, driving split highways, freeways, or interstates. When the test driver moved over to take an exit during our drive, the system turned off and asked him to take over as soon as he signalled that he was changing lanes.

Even if all of these condition are met, the system is only capable of speeds up to 40 mph (60 kmh).

The journey

The controls in the steering wheel illuminate turquoise when DRIVE PILOT is turned on. Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The vehicle’s interior is nearly identical to that of an S-Class, with one notable exception: A set of buttons on the steering wheel are located directly beneath the driver’s thumbs. When the external criteria are met, these buttons, etched with an image of a car’s front end and the letter ‘A’ over the top, are used to activate the Level 3 system. When the system is available, the lighting around the buttons and on the steering column goes white, and when it is engaged, the lighting changes green-blue.

We returned to Santa Monica after a short journey down the 10 highway in Los Angeles, which carried us towards downtown LA. There was a lot of stop-and-go traffic, and the system had plenty of chances to fail. We experienced different road obstructions such as plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and more than one inattentive Angeleno making panic stops and randomly cutting into our lane of traffic within the first five minutes on the freeway.

When all prerequisites were met and the system was available for a short time, it appeared to work flawlessly. The transition was seamless and virtually imperceptible. The driver activated the system, removed his hands and feet from the steering wheel, and let the car drive itself while maintaining his focus on the road ahead.

When the system is engaged, it uses the maximum following distance, thus the gap between the S-class and the car ahead was fairly significant. We didn’t get to see what would happen if a human made a quick lane change in front driving of the car while operating the conditional Level 3 system because, alas, no one decided to jump into that gap while the system was engaged. An audible tone would play and a message would appear for the driver to take over if the system lost the vital information, such as when the lane markings (also known as oreos) got faint. The test driver would then take over control of the vehicle.

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Over the course of our 30-minute ride, the system was only engaged for around 10 minutes. As traffic increased up to over 40 mph, or the system lost the necessary knowledge to manage the driving, each contact was brief. We did not have enough time to evaluate the system because of the brief travel, but it did provide driving us a taste of how Level 3 autonomy might work in the near future. The real concern is how the system will perform in the hands of customers, and whether or not even the wealthy will invest in the technology.

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