On the road and ready to go, the Mercedes-Benz S-class 2014/2015 has been out there for more than a year and is leading the pack in near-driverless technologies.
“Near-driverless” is of course an imprecise term, but here’s an excerpt of the definition of Level 3 autonomous vehicles from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain … conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes … requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.
According to this definition, the S-Class should be able to take over full control in certain limited situations, but the driver must always be ready to jump in. The vehicle itself should tell you when you have to take back control, and it should also give you some reasonable heads-up time to react.
As we will see, the 2015 S-Class isn’t quite a Level 3 vehicle yet. It’s a process.
When Will It Drive Itself?
So when exactly will this $90,000+ powerhouse let you sit back, relax, and leave the driving to a bunch of German engineers?
The key term here is “DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist and Stop&Go Pilot”. This is a mouthful (try saying it quickly three times), but this combination of technologies allows the S-class vehicle to follow the next car in slow traffic jam conditions, up to 37 mph (60 km/h). “Following” means keeping a safe distance from the next car, and using it as a guide to keep in the lane, even on (gentle) curves.It’s smart enought to note the lane markings, so if the next car decides to cut lanes, you don’t follow.
So If Your Friends Decide to Jump Off a Cliff, Would You Too?
The answer here is apparently yes, unless you are alert and make a manual correction. As it says in the Owners Manual:
If you are following a vehicle which is driving towards the edge of the road, your vehicle could come into contact with the curb or other road boundaries.
So it’s no surprise that even this super-smart vehicle still requires you to keep your hands on the wheel. The self-driving systems automatically turn off if your hands leave the steering wheel, or if you don’t do any steering corrections for a long time. We haven’t yet reached a true Level-3 that will let you text, daydream, or doze off for even 15 seconds. The moment your hands leave the wheel, you’re back in control.
Some writers think that this limitation is, pardon the pun, driven more by legal issues than by any technical limitations in the system. After all, the Assist technology can probably see when the traffic jam is clearing up, and can warn you to start steering again in say 20 seconds.
Quite possibly the Mercedes people are still hesitant to open the Pandora’s Box of non-attentive driving. If I’m in the middle of an important text (or a much-needed nap), can’t I just hit the snooze control for a few more seconds? But, like many issues in the self-driving arena, society has to find new ways to accept this radically new technology. Till then, we’ll just keep on keeping on, with the million-plus annual casualties still taking its toll on the world’s roads.