- Mercedes' Drive Pilot system may be the first vehicle with legitimate Level 3 automated driving.
- We may see Drive Pilot on the road by next summer.
- It has limitations, but it's also less expensive than you might think.
Mercedes-Benz Inches Us Closer to a Driverless Future With Level 3 Drive Pilot System
Sit back and enjoy the ride
The road to autonomous vehicles has had more than a few false starts and delays. It wasn't too long ago that we all thought we'd have self-driving vehicles roaming the streets and highways by now, at least in small numbers. It's a fair statement that many of us were as overly optimistic as the car manufacturers.
We've had glimpses of automated and self-driving vehicles over the years — with GM's Super Cruise and Ford's BlueCruise being the most advanced, offering hands-free driving on the highway in certain conditions — but none have fulfilled the ultimate dream of autonomous piloting in a production vehicle yet. Mercedes-Benz has also worked on advancing toward that goal as well, and recently gave us an update of where the state of its technology stands. We were able to try out its forthcoming Drive Pilot system during a demonstration on Los Angeles highways during rush hour.
A brief primer in automated driving
When referencing automated or autonomous driving, we use the standard established by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Many new cars today can be classified with Level 2 automation if being used with automated lane centering, a steering system that automatically keeps the vehicle centered in its lane, and adaptive cruise control, which adjusts the speed to maintain a consistent space between your vehicle and a vehicle you're following. These systems combine to reduce some of the burden of driving on long road trips or in stop-and-go traffic.
Level 3 automation means a vehicle can monitor its environment and allows a vehicle to drive itself under limited conditions. This may not work in every situation (not all roads are eligible, and inclement weather and certain road conditions can require the human driver to take the wheel), and the driver must be present and ready to resume control of the vehicle at a moment's notice.
Level 4 automation comes with fewer conditions for operation and can operate without a driver in certain defined service areas. These vehicles may or may not even have a steering wheel or pedals. Level 5 is the ultimate goal, where the vehicle is approved to drive itself under any condition without a driver.
Drive Pilot goes to Level 3
If all goes according to plan, Mercedes-Benz will likely be the first carmaker to introduce a legitimate vehicle with Level 3 automated driving in the U.S., courtesy of the new Drive Pilot system. It has been undergoing certification testing in California and Nevada, and approval for public use may be granted by the fall. At that point, Mercedes will make Drive Pilot available as an option on the S-Class sedan and owners could have them in their hands by the summer of 2023.
Drive Pilot uses three distinct sensor systems: stereo cameras, radar and lidar. Stereo cameras and radar have been on vehicles for several years and have made adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and other safety features possible. Lidar operates on a similar principle as radar but uses lasers to optically scan instead of radio waves. Each sensor system has its own advantages and drawbacks.
The driver activates Drive Pilot with illuminated buttons on the steering wheel rim. In its current form, the system can only be activated on approved roads and only up to 40 mph. Also, at least two of the three sensor systems must agree that it is safe to activate. When these conditions are met, the system will ask for confirmation and begin operating.
On a demonstration drive as a passenger on notoriously congested Los Angeles freeways, our S-Class performed as advertised. The big sedan maintained a consistent gap behind the vehicles ahead and remained centered in its lane with no noticeable lurches or twitches. In essence, it drove like a chauffeur. It's important to note that when Drive Pilot is engaged, Mercedes-Benz accepts liability for the vehicle. We're sure there will be some limitations, but it's a clear indication of how confident the company is in its abilities.
There were instances in which the driver was instructed to resume driving duties with visual and audible prompts. One instance was when the driver was not looking forward or at the infotainment screen and after a few seconds Drive Pilot disengaged. Another instance was when traffic began to move faster than 40 mph and the gap behind the vehicle ahead exceeded the range of the sensors. In both cases, the handoff to the driver was free of any drama.
Of course, the driver can intervene at any time and disable Drive Pilot by tapping the steering wheel buttons, by giving the steering wheel a little turning input, or by pressing on the brake pedal or accelerator. When disengaged, the system reverts to non-automated driving. In order to reduce any potential confusion, the Level 2 systems will not automatically take over once you break out of the Drive Pilot environment. You'll have to activate those yourself.
Once deactivated, if the driver does not take control of the vehicle, the system will assume they are incapacitated or experiencing some sort of medical issue. The vehicle will automatically activate the hazard lights, slow to a stop, unlock the doors and summon emergency services.
Besides the conditions mentioned above, Drive Pilot has some additional limitations. Initially, the system will only be approved for use on roads in California and Nevada. These roads are generally limited to divided highways. If it is raining or if the road is wet, the system will not activate since stopping distances and handling characteristics are too difficult to predict. Drive Pilot will also not work in most tunnels either because GPS data may be unavailable.
In the event that more regions are approved for Drive Pilot or if some conditions are reduced or revised, the system will use over-the-air software updates to keep everything current.
One last thing ...
Drive Pilot won't cost as much as Tesla's $12,000 so-called Full Self-Driving system. It was hinted that pricing will be comparable to a premium audio option, so we expect it to cost somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000.
In a separate demonstration, Mercedes-Benz showed us the Intelligent Park Pilot system that pushes into Level 4 driverless automation. This system allows the driver to park the vehicle in a specific area in commercial spaces (hotels, malls, airports, etc.) and exit the vehicle and the car will find a spot on its own and park itself. The driver can then summon the vehicle to the drop-off location or other designated area and depart.
Intelligent Park Pilot is being tested at the Stuttgart airport in Germany and has strong potential to make it to the U.S. The system leans heavily on lidar or stereo camera sensors installed throughout the parking facility rather than relying solely on the sensors built into the vehicle. As a result, it may be easier to predict if a pedestrian or other vehicle may cross the intended path. The demonstration went off without a hitch, but it's worth mentioning that the EQS sedan demonstrator vehicle moved at a very slow pace. Baby steps, right?
The Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot system is still very far from realizing the fully autonomous future, but it's a significant step in the right direction. It may not be able to drive you across the country, but it will make bumper-to-bumper traffic much more bearable.