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Mercedes EQS. Photo by Rodney Watkins.

Autonomous Vehicles

California Approves Mercedes Level 3 Drive Pilot Technology, With Limitations

California has approved the Mercedes Drive Pilot Level 3 technology suite for use in the S Class and EQS models.

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Mercedes has received permission from the state of California to sell cars which feature Level 3 Drive Pilot technology to the public. But the permission comes with some restrictions: “This permit excludes operation on city or county streets, in construction zones, during heavy rain or heavy fog, on flooded roads and during weather conditions that are determined to impact performance of DRIVE PILOT. Vehicle owners must watch a mandatory video explaining the capabilities of the system and how to engage and disengage the technology before Mercedes-Benz will activate DRIVE PILOT in the vehicle.”

The permit grants Mercedes-Benz permission to offer its system on California highways in the Bay Area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego and on interstate highways connecting Southern California to Nevada.

Drive Pilot is similar to the Ford Blue Cruise and GM Super Cruise systems in that it permits drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel. But Drive Pilot takes things a step further. Mercedes says Drive Pilot will be available in the US as an option for model year 2024 Mercedes-Benz S Class and EQS Sedan models, with the first cars delivered to customers in late 2023.

Drive Pilot relies on input from several cameras and radar, as well as a lidar sensor to construct a 3D model of its surrounding environment. It also uses microphones to detect approaching emergency vehicles.

Surprisingly, the system appears not to be designed for long distance driving on the open road. Mercedes says that Drive Pilot will only operate during daylight hours at speeds up to 40 mph on “suitable freeway sections and where there is high traffic density.” That makes it sound like an antidote to rush hour traffic rather than software that can pilot a car cross-country with little input from the driver.

While the system is active, drivers must keep their faces visible to the vehicle’s in-car cameras at all times, but can turn their head to talk to a passenger or play a game on the vehicle’s infotainment screen. Drivers can’t crawl into the back seat to take a nap, for instance. The system will disengage if the driver’s face is obscured or an attempt is made to block access to the in-car cameras. Presumably the system will deactivate itself if it detects the driver is sleeping or operating the car while impaired.

“The certification by the authorities in California…once again confirms that redundancy is the safe and thus the right approach,” said Mercedes chief technology officer Markus Schäfer in a statement. Mercedes previously obtained permission to offer the technology in Nevada where there is no official approval process. That state allows manufacturers to self-certify that their technology meets certain criteria.

What Drive Pilot Is & Is Not

Mercedes Drive Pilot

Image courtesy of Mercedes

Drive Pilot is a small step up to Level 3 autonomy from Level 2. Drivers still must be attentive to the road ahead and be ready to resume control of their car at any time. The Verge points out that autonomous vehicle operators like Waymo and Cruise think Level 3 is too dangerous. They prefer to work exclusively on Level 4 technology, which is far better able to operate a motor vehicle without any human interaction (although a Waymo robotaxi did run over a dog that darted out from between two parked cars recently.)

Those companies point to the need for drivers to stay attentive despite the vehicle performing most of the driving tasks. It is well known that no matter how often a person watches a video or reads an owners manual, a certain complacency sets in when a self-driving system is activated. That complacency can lead to a delay of several seconds when a driver is required to resume direct control of the car.

Lots of bad things can happen during those precious moments between when a driver first realizes there is a situation developing that requires driver input and when the driver actually re-engages in the driving process. Recently, it was a dog that got killed, but it could just as easily be a young child who suddenly steps in front of a moving vehicle.

The incident in San Francisco has caused a storm of protest from concerned citizens and city officials ahead of a scheduled hearing later this month that may clear the way for Waymo and Cruise to being operating robotaxis 24 hours a day within the city.

The Takeaway

This achievement by Mercedes is a baby step forward on the path to self-driving cars, nothing more. The dream of driving from LA to NYC without any human input remains as elusive as it was when Elon Musk said it would happen “soon” — back in 2016. We don’t know what Mercedes expects to charge for this optional technology, but drivers will want to perform their own cost/benefit analysis before deciding whether this is a party trick or something that adds significant value to their motoring experience.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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