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Shhhh, The Auto Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know About Tesla Model S Autopilot vs. Mercedes S-Class Distronic

Guest post courtesy of Frank O. Clark, Ph.D
Full disclosure: The author owns a 2016 Tesla Model S, a 2019 Mercedes S-Class, and some Tesla stock.

I drive a Tesla Model S 90D that I bought new in 2016, and have since enjoyed 60,000 trouble-free miles. I love the vehicle both as my daily driver and for long road trips from New England to the Deep South. Electric drive notwithstanding, it is the best driving car I have ever owned. It outperforms and out-handles my Porsche 911, and out-comforts my Mercedes.

Recently, my Tesla Model S started reporting “low battery coolant,” and Tesla service had no loaners (they offered Uber credit for getting back and forth). The pandemic being in full swing, and me pushing 80, I was eager to get my COVID vaccine as soon as possible. I found the nearest vaccine clinic, which was an hour drive away and jumped at the chance to sign up. Not wanting to fiddle with Uber, I thought it was time to upgrade my ride. I like my Tesla Model S so much that I ordered the new Tesla Model S Plaid+ for its longer range, improved autosteer, prep for full self driving, and upgraded cameras and safety features. The only problem was that my replacement would not be delivered for a year. What to do? This got me thinking.

I thoroughly researched all of the printed and online literature, blogs, and comments on which car had the best autosteer! The pandemic kept me from all the interaction required to try them all out. I was literally afraid to drive the car with another unknown person in it.

I have always wanted a Mercedes S-Class, for the road-quiet, luxury, and all the things I like about how Mercedes makes cars. I had a 15 year old E-Class that I used to think was the best road car I had ever owned, but it was getting long in the tooth. So after reading reviews that stated the Mercedes “Distronic” steering was as good, or better than, Tesla’s autosteer, I indulged myself and bought a 1-year-old factory-certified Mercedes S560 with a new car warranty with the intention to drive it until my new Plaid+ was delivered, and then keep it as a backup. (It was the only one I could find in the Boston metro area with “Distronic steering” because of the chip shortage.)

As with any new car, I bonded with it for several hours after taking delivery, setting up the Bluetooth, infotainment, etc. 

Having gotten used to the simplicity of Tesla’s intuitive interface, I found this process in my new Mercedes to be inordinately cumbersome and frustratingly convoluted. I read the manual about a hundred times, tried over and over, and could not change the “radio” from Sirius XM (with which Mercedes — in hindsight — I suspect must have some affiliation) to plain FM. This baffled me, and it baffled my partner. A Ph.D. geek and an M.D. who is a full professor in the Harvard Medical School, and neither of us could figure out how to change the damn radio. (Eventually, a YouTube video explained it. Thank you!)

As the day of my vaccine appointment drew nearer, I continued to fiddle with the controls and settings, and eventually got everything working. But even once fully and correctly configured, operation remained cumbersome and unintuitive. I really began missing my Tesla Model S.

Finally, the big day arrived and I excitedly drove the Mercedes to my vaccine clinic destination about 50 miles away. This would give me the opportunity to really put the Distronic steering and adaptive cruise control through their paces on a limited access highway. My expectations were high as I left my driveway, memories of all those grand reviews swimming in my head. My senses were all on high alert to observe and revel in what had been described as a superior experience. As I entered the highway and engaged my cruise and Distronic autosteer, I literally could not believe the difference between Tesla autosteer and Mercedes Distronic steering.

I drove the big Mercedes an hour to the west, and the Mercedes Distronic autosteer was worse than poor. It works, barely, but the reviewers who said it was better than Tesla’s system have clearly never driven a Tesla. How can they write reviews like this with a straight face? I am not sure I am going to believe any of these car reviews anymore. It’s really not even in the same class as Tesla! I was surprised and even more embarrassed for Mercedes. It felt downright dangerous.

Confused, and troubled by this stark diversion from expectations, I studied the road conditions for clues to what could be causing such a serious malfunction. It was then I could see why the Mercedes Distronic self steering had so miserably failed. There were stretches on the Massachusetts Turnpike with only one line, sometimes the left missing, sometimes the right missing, several stretches with no lines at all, and a few where the lines were indistinct.

This is an example of how the Tesla display has become an integral part of my driving that I don’t think about. The Tesla display tells me all of this with on-screen lane markers that show when it can detect correctly spaced dotted or solid lane markers. The Mercedes does not.

Autosteer in the Tesla gets updated constantly, and has improved quite a bit since I bought the car. In my history of driving with it, Tesla steering does not change anything when one line disappears, and never misses a beat when both lines disappear. It calmly continues without complaint or hesitation as it actually reads the seams in the asphalt, as I had noticed last summer when driving over new pavement. I could see those on the display, but not as a normal big solid line indicating a well read dotted lane marker, just a little narrow line. This reinforces what I had not realized, that the Tesla display and autosteer have just naturally become a part of my freeway driving sensory perception. I supervise, but the car drives.

This is just a fabulous widget for older drivers, distracted drivers, or new drivers — in short, anybody. Autopilot is dead on. It’s like the Tesla is on rails, whereas the Mercedes acts like it had been on a drunken bender.

The only reason I noted those stretches in my Tesla is because the bright green lines on the central display that tell me the autosteer is detecting and reading those lane markers disappeared. That made me search for the reason, and it was then obvious that there were no lane markers at all for a stretch. Note that this also means that the Tesla display nudges you to pay more attention to road conditions that we might otherwise dismiss.

Tesla’s autosteer is light years ahead. This is a HUGE point for me given my age. I am a very safe, cautious, and accomplished driver, but on the freeway, the Tesla autosteer unquestionably drives better than I do, hands down. It senses things before I pick up on them, and the newer models, with cameras all around and dedicated compute threads for analysis of each camera, do even better. The Mercedes felt downright dangerous in comparison. It had sloppy lane-keeping and delayed response times making me think I had to intervene several times. I felt I couldn’t relax and trust it.

As we age, we’re more easily distracted and don’t keep up with all the things going on around us as well as we used to. Our reflexes and cognition slow down. The contrast between my Tesla and the Mercedes made me realize just how good Tesla’s Autopilot truly is at “assisting” my driving.

And this is the industry’s biggest open secret right now. EV or not, Tesla has the most advanced cars, safety features, and user interface of any car on the planet. It already makes driving more an act of supervision. When full self-driving comes out, it will be so superior to every other car there will be no comparison. The auto industry knows this and doesn’t want you to. They want to bury this fact. They want to promote and support talking heads who extol the benefits of older brands, and disparage Tesla.

Not only is the internal combustion engine doomed, but so is every car manufacturer on the planet except for perhaps Volkswagen. The Detroit big 3 are literally “dead men walking.” People will buy this stuff for a while, because many people don’t like to learn new ways of doing things, and driving a Tesla is nothing like driving any ICE car on the planet. But the word is going to spread as more people realize what I am realizing. Elon Musk is going to sell a lot of cars, not because they are electric, but because the computer user interface is so good! Anybody who actually buys one is going to realize this is a different ball game, above and beyond the electric part.

This really is an “iPhone vs. Raspberry” moment, even if other cars switch to electric motors and batteries. I did not fully appreciate just how advanced Tesla software is, until I bought the Mercedes. A Tesla is a computer on wheels. The battery and electric motor are incidental. I predict that Tesla is going to become the #1 automobile for seniors. With technology this good, Tesla can extend your “safe driving” years considerably. Once Musk perfects “full self driving,” even if it only is reliable in clear weather, that will provide further mobility! Think about that. I am seeing it first hand, I can “feel” the difference, especially on the highway, but even with my five-year-old outmoded Mobileye sensor, the Tesla is light years safer just driving down the road in town. It tells me everything that is going on. I did not fully appreciate how much I had come to rely on it until I didn’t have it anymore.

No wonder there are people on the web constantly badmouthing Tesla’s “Autopilot” and “Full Self Driving.” The big car manufacturers must be scared witless if they really understand what is going on, and they should be. It means they really are history. I now really appreciate the people on the web who have said Tesla does the boring stuff better than we do. They are spot on. Especially the “better than we do” part. These are young people. Just wait until the elderly get this message! It is perfectly clear once you drive a Tesla.

Yes, the interface is different, so it will take a little getting used to, but updates are always easy to figure out intuitively. I am not sure anybody really appreciates this aspect of Tesla yet, the fact that Musk has simply built a better mousetrap.

This review is a real-world, apples-to-apples comparison between my 2016 Tesla S and the 2019 Mercedes. The following are the scores I give each of them in core areas.


Connecting my phone via bluetooth:

Mercedes: A
Connected easily. The wireless charging works flawlessly.

Tesla: A-
Wireless charging not available in this model. 


Autosteer:

Mercedes: D
Acts like it’s been on a drunken bender.

Tesla: A+
Rock-solid reliability and intuitive performance. Drives like it’s on rails!


Adaptive cruise control: 

Mercedes: B
Not as good as Tesla 4 years ago, and no contest today. It works, but not even in the same class as Tesla. It slows down for no reason, and just is not terribly functional on the freeway. 

Tesla: A+


Radio: 

Mercedes: F-
I read the manual about a hundred times, tried over and over, and could not change the “radio” from Sirius XM (with which Mercedes — in hindsight — I suspect must have some affiliation) to plain FM. This baffled me and my partner — a Ph.D. geek and an M.D. who is a full professor in the Harvard Medical School.

Tesla: A+


Android Auto: 

Mercedes: F-
“You can, but you may not.” I can see Android Auto on the sub menu, but it claims no phone is connected, even though I can read the contacts list on the phone, make phone calls, and even navigate off some of the contacts (the car claimed an “invalid format” when I told it to navigate home by using the contact list with my name! It is kind of telling that the Tesla has no problem with this address, which, in hindsight, was not imputed into the contact list precisely correctly.). I did correct that address to make it perfect, so now the Mercedes works too. I contacted my salesperson at the dealer, who is quite nice, sharp, and seems to understand these things well, to tell me how to get it to work on Android Auto (it is, of course, already installed on the phone, and I tried it both with AA running and not). The key was that the phone had to be physically plugged in to one particular outlet, bluetooth was insufficient. This is an example of stovepipe integration of pieces, in which the components (pieces) cannot talk to each other. In a Mercedes S560?

Tesla: NA
Has its own proprietary navigation system. Better than Google and Apple maps, so interface is not necessary. Really. I give it an A+.


Voice Commands:

Mercedes: C-
Mercedes voice commands are hit or miss. I got them to work a few times, and they did what I wanted, but either they will not work when the car is moving (which is when you really want them), or they went on strike, as I tried them several times on the way back and got the “duhh” response (as in no response). These are definitely of odd quality and functionality.

Tesla: A


Infotainment: 

Mercedes: C-
The fact that the phone in a Mercedes has to be physically connected by a cable to one particular USB port, despite already being bluetooth connected for phone function and sitting on the wireless charging pad in the car, is one more example of a bailing wire and duct tape approach to component “integration.” The “integration” part means that it is able to display on the built-in screen, but is unable to share cross-functionality with anything else. I could understand this on a cheap car, but this is a Mercedes S560, the top of the line.

Tesla: A
I had not fully appreciated just how much work Tesla had done by building everything in-house and writing all of their own software from scratch.


Seats: 

Mercedes: B
Great materials and finish. Good comfort.

Tesla: A
In one of the Elon Musk–Sandy Munro interviews, they both commented on Tesla seats as being outstanding. Tesla makes their own seats in-house. I thought that was nutty when I first heard it. Sandy Munro commented that he had been in a Tesla seat for some unGodly amount of time, over a day, and he still felt fine. Musk said it was because they engineered out the pressure points in the seats. This might seem like a small point, but twice I made the trip back up and down the East Coast without stopping, 18 hours plus charging, just napped in the car during charging, and I have to agree that this nutcase billionaire with the teenage brain (hint: I love it!) has engineered some comfortable seats. This just reinforces my previous realization, that Musk has built the best car (headroom as you get in and out being the exception, but that is imposed by the batteries), even if you forget about the electric part. (My old Tesla has his new seats because I paid quite a bit extra for them when I bought the car.)

Editor’s note: See our stories from CleanTechnica’s exclusive tour of the Tesla seat factory and interviews with the head engineers there:

I think we’re still the only media company to tour the Tesla seat factory. What a lucky privilege!


Overall experience, user interface score: 

Mercedes: C+/B-
On par with every other legacy car company. 

Tesla: A+
There is simply no contest. This is one aspect of Tesla that I along with every single review I have read has missed. I had not really appreciated this enough. Yes, Tesla is selling a form of electric transport, but more importantly, it has “created the iPhone of cars.” It is just plain simple, it “just works,” and it is really easy to figure out almost always on the first try or guess.


 

 
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