Mercedes says its Drive Pilot system is the first Level 3 hands-free autonomous driving technology available on a production car. You may think your Tesla with Full Self Driving or a General Motors product equipped with Super Cruise or a Ford product with Blue Cruise are Level 3 systems, but they are not.
What’s the difference? Tesla, GM, and Ford strenuously warn drivers they must be constantly vigilant when those systems are active and ready to take over whenever they disengage. Mercedes says Drive Pilot is a real self-driving system and once it is activated, the driver can watch a video, Facetime with friends, or recite The Three Little Pigs backwards if desired.
If a collision occurs, Mercedes will assume all legal liability. You can almost hear the members of the American Trial Lawyers Association licking their chops in anticipation of the hefty verdicts they imagine will result once jurors find out Mercedes-Benz is responsible, not the poor schlub behind the wheel.
Is this too good to be true? Yes and no. It is true as far as it goes. But Drive Pilot can only be engaged on a certain highways, and the car must not exceed 40 miles per hour. Not gonna be that much help on your next cross-country roadtrip, in other words. Furthermore, once the system disengages, legal liability reverts to the driver.
In the event of a disengagement, do the dreaded “red hands of death” appear on a screen? Do sirens and klaxons warn drivers to stop watching videos or texting? No, the Mercedes system is more sophisticated than that. Unlike all currently available driver assist systems, Drive Pilot is designed to give drivers a 10-second warning before switching off. The engineers made sure the system would safely and faultlessly hand over control in every situation.
Mercedes Drive Pilot Details
According to Road & Track, Drive Pilot has more redundancies and uses additional power supplies to critical systems. It also uses higher quality image processing and LiDAR scanners, and collates positioning data from GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS satellites for guidance. [For more about Drive Pilot — make that much more — check out this pdf from Mercedes.]
The system will only operate during the daytime, in reasonably clear weather, and without overhead obstructions. Inclement weather, construction zones, tunnels, and emergency vehicles will all trigger a handover warning. The cars equipped with Drive Pilot use microphone and cameras to detect emergency lights and sirens far enough in advance to give drivers a 10-second warning before the system disengages and the driver has to take over control or the vehicle.
All eligible roads must be mapped by Mercedes for Drive Pilot use. The company has already done that for every highway in Germany and most of them in Nevada and California. The system, which is available now in the Mercedes S Class and EQS, is approved for use on all German highways (good luck traveling less than 60 km/h on the autobahn).
Mercedes expects it will be approved for use in California and Nevada next. “By the end of last year, we were the first to get international certification for a Level 3 system,” says Drive Pilot senior development manager Gregor Kugelmann. “We’re aiming to get that for California and Nevada by the end of this year, and we’re checking a lot of other states as well.”
He adds, “I would expect that, here in the United States, some other states may adopt the rules that will be applied by pioneer states like California and Nevada. And then, they’d have maybe two or three specific rules included in their region. But we will probably have to deal with each individual state because of the way you guys are organized as a country.” Or disorganized, as the case may be, Gregor.
A Road Test for Autonomous Cars
Road & Track’s Mack Hogan got invite to a ride-along event to experience Drive Pilot for himself. He writes, “My time in a Drive Pilot equipped S Class was unbelievably normal. Aside from the development display showing the computer’s view of the world, the sensation was exactly the same as riding in a chauffeur driven sedan.
“Drive Pilot was noticeably smoother and more competent than any currently available semi-autonomous driver aid, especially when other vehicles would cut close in front of us, a phenomenon that, on Level 2 vehicles, often requires drivers to intervene. The only snag I witnessed was when the vehicle picked up on a set of flashing amber lights on a road sign and confused them for emergency lights, prompting the 10 second warning and a manual take over.”
Hogan is no fan of Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD systems. He says, “Many of us have grown accustomed to the brazen moves of Tesla’s Autopilot, a system that often puts its driver in a precarious situation, then unceremoniously disengages, handing over control with little warning and no concern for whether the driver is paying attention
“Against this background, Drive Pilot is a watershed moment for the fledgling autonomous car industry. For the first time, a consumer-facing semi-autonomous driving system is not leaning on the crutch of the beta test or relying on the constant vigilance of the human operator. Drive Pilot is a confident, competent robot that is, finally, legally driving.”
If Hogan seems a little harsh in his assessment of Tesla’s semi-autonomous system, he is not alone. Many Tesla owners are complaining long and loud about phantom braking events after a recent software update. The legal obligation that Tesla may or may not have to other drivers who are unwitting participants in its beta level testing protocols has never been fully explored by personal injury lawyers — yet.
My take is that the Mercedes Drive Pilot system has too many restrictions to be called a real breakthrough in self-driving technology. Rather, it feels like the scene in the Spielberg movie Close Encounters when the aliens start communicating with lowly humans using musical tones, which prompts one observer to say, “It’s the first day of school, fellas.”
This feels like that to me — a moment in time when a boundary was crossed and there is no going back. Yeah, the technology may be crude — 40 miles per hour? Really? — but in a year or two, or maybe three, this will be commonplace, at least for those who can afford to pay the price for the technology, which will advance by leaps and bounds from here. It really is the first day of school and Mercedes is the teacher.