Lifestyle

Testing (And Trusting) Mercedes-Benz Level 3 Drive Pilot In Germany

Imagine driving down the highway, and you approach near-standstill traffic. As your vehicle speed drops to 35 mph, buttons on the steering wheel’s rim illuminate in teal. Press either one, and the vehicle immediately takes complete control of driving through the bumper-to-bumper congestion. You may casually take your hands off the wheel and eyes off the road and safely – and legally – answer text messages, e-mail, or watch videos. Once traffic opens back up, the buttons on the steering wheel illuminate in white, letting you know that you should regain control and continue your journey.

I’m not describing science fiction or some far-off theoretical technology. Instead, this is Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, a Level 3 vehicle autonomy system that is the world’s first internationally valid system approved for conditional automated driving – it’s currently offered on German market Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS models, and it’s coming to the U.S. market soon. I recently had the opportunity to test Drive Pilot at the company’s R&D center in Germany.

As a refresher, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of driving automation on a scale ranging from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous). Most vehicles have basic “cruise control” to hold a set speed, which qualifies as Level 1. More advanced “adaptive cruise control” or “advanced driver assistance systems” (ADAS) utilize cameras and radars (or mapped roads) to maintain a set speed in traffic and keep the vehicle within the lane. This is called Level 2 (examples include Tesla Autopilot, GM’s SuperCruise, and Ford’s BlueCruise).

The jump to Level 3 may look insignificant from a human perspective, but it is considerable from a technological standpoint. This is because Level 3 vehicles need “environmental detection” capabilities – they must be able to interpret the actions of other vehicles and surroundings and make informed decisions for themselves (e.g., pull over for approaching emergency vehicles or adjust the driving style for inclement weather). In addition, level 3 systems allow automation to take over specific driving tasks as long as the driver is alert and ready to resume control when prompted (driver controls don’t disappear until SAE Level 5).

Drive Pilot is a suite of cameras, radars, sensors, microphones, and processors built upon the current Mercedes-Benz Driving Assistance Package. The upgrades include LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensing and dedicated microphones to pick up the sound of wet pavement and approaching emergency vehicles. In addition, Drive Pilot utilizes a HD map to receive information about route profile, road geometry, traffic signals, and unusual traffic events (e.g., accidents or roadwork). The HD map is updated via a backend connection, so the vehicle always utilizes the latest update.

In addition to the sensors and HD mapping, Drive Pilot incorporates high-resolution GPS – much more potent than conventional GPS systems. The precise satellite positioning is overlayed on the HD maps and then verified by the data coming in from the LiDAR, cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors. Using all of its “senses” allows Drive Pilot to know precisely where the vehicle is based on route characteristics, buildings, road geometry, landmarks, and even traffic signs.

The vehicle interprets the HD map three-dimensionally, confirming the data received with the stored data (each Drive Pilot vehicle is recording and storing imagery and then uploading it to a data center to ensure it is accurate and up to date). And, of course, all transmitted and received data is meticulously protected with sophisticated security algorithms.

Today, Mercedes-Benz is offering Drive Pilot on its S-Class and EQS models. Interestingly, these vehicles – one combustion and the other a pure EV – have very different mechanical architecture. The EQS boasts innovative (and redundant) digital architecture, while the S-Class is more traditional (mechanical) in its systems. As a result, Mercedes fits the S-Class models with a supplemental steering and braking system, and the vehicle boasts a backup onboard electrical system as redundancy in case one of the systems fails.

Someday, automated driving will be possible at nearly all speeds, but getting to that point is challenging (both technically and legislatively). As of today, Drive Pilot has been certified for speeds up to 60 km/h (37 mph) by the German Federal Motor Transit Authority (KBA), paving the way for approval in other countries (e.g., the U.S. Department of Transportation on our shores). While that may sound a bit slow, look at the speedometer the next time you are stuck in traffic – the most frustrating congestion happens below 30 mph.

To sample its Drive Pilot system, Mercedes-Benz put me behind the wheel of an equipped S-Class without any pre-instruction – confidently demonstrating how effortless the system is to use. The test took place on a multi-lane high-speed oval at the company’s expansive R&D center in Immendingen, Germany. Sparing no expense, the automaker hired a dozen drivers to operate a variety of vehicles (e.g., cars, tractor trailers, ambulances, etc.) and replicated “traffic” for Drive Pilot to engage.

As in a real-world situation, I was instructed to approach the slowly moving cluster of vehicles (“traffic”) at about 60 mph. As I approached, I braked down to about 30 mph to match my speed to the vehicle directly ahead in my lane, and Drive Pilot illuminated the teal buttons on each side of the steering wheel – telling me the system was ready to work. With a simple press, Drive Pilot was active, and I removed my hands from the wheel and slid my feet back away from the pedals (in addition to the teal lights, the driver is well informed with an array of displays on the dashboard and head-up display).

My S-Class followed the vehicle in front, accelerating and braking automatically to retain the gap. This continued for a moment before the other drivers began to run through potential real-world scenarios – erratic driving, cutting people off, etc. One car began to drift into my lane, and Drive Pilot slowed the S-Class safely until he returned to his position. Another made an abrupt lane change, cutting through the path of the S-Class, and the Mercedes again braked accurately to avoid a collision. Then the driver in front of me stopped abruptly – Drive Pilot quickly stopped in time. Then the driver began to back up into the front of my car. Drive Pilot, alert and aware that this was unusual, honked my vehicle’s horn!

Two other tests demonstrated Drive Pilot’s advanced systems. First, an approaching ambulance appeared in my rearview mirror, closing in on our cluster of traffic. Drive Pilot alerted me, and the S-Class moved safely to the side to allow it to pass. Further down the road, a worker was on the highway guiding people away from an obstruction. Drive Pilot slowed, noted the person on the road, and navigated safely around the hazard.

There is a lot of redundancy for safety. If Drive Pilot is confused, the teal buttons illuminate in red – vehicle control is relinquished back to the driver. However, if Drive Pilot chooses to hand vehicle control back to the driver and they are unresponsive (e.g., due to a health problem), the system will signal with buttons illuminated in red, apply the brakes, and safely slow the vehicle to a standstill in a controlled manner. It will simultaneously activate the vehicle’s hazard warning lights and summon help via the Mercedes-Benz emergency call system (to aid first responders, Drive Pilot will also unlock the vehicle’s doors and windows).

Drive Pilot is much more advanced than the other autonomy systems I have tested. While Tesla’s Autopilot is impressive at first glance, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot offers several more layers of safety and capability. The interface of the Mercedes system is more transparent (e.g., the head-up display shows the driver what Drive Pilot is about to do), and it relies on a much more comprehensive suite of sensors and cameras for all-weather capability and redundancy. It takes only a few minutes to become familiar with how it works. And, by the end of the test, I completely trusted it – I pulled out my phone and took a few pictures!

As mentioned, Drive Pilot is coming to the U.S. market soon. Mercedes-Benz is planning on testing the system on our roads in early 2023, with hopes for certification shortly after that. It can’t come soon enough — it will make my daily commute a much safer and more pleasant experience.

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