Experienced by Kimatni D. Rawlins
It’s an interesting disposition in this new digital and automated vehicular mobility age. Since first receiving a learner’s permit, I was instructed to operate a vehicle with both hands on the wheel, keep my eyes on the road, and avoid distractions omnipresent on our cluttered streets, from texting to eating. Now, auto engineers and executives are reversing their tone and imploring drivers to let go of the wheel, play a few digital games on multimedia screens, and relax as if it’s a spa day. Well, that’s precisely what I attempted to do with Mercedes-Benz DRIVE PILOT while testing an all-electric EQS sedan in Santa Monica, CA recently.
What is special about DRIVE PILOT you might be wondering? In Los Angeles, where traffic is horrendous, the vehicle can self-drive up to 40 miles an hour in traffic only. As the world’s first automaker to introduce SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving to the U.S., the technology is intuitive and inventive. My EQS could change lanes when needed, decelerate, and steer while I ideated on what to do with my time. Yes, I could have made a Zoom call, texted a few people, watched a movie, adjusted my calendar, or a myriad of other activities. Yet, I was too apprehensive and remained focused on the road with my foot slightly touching the brake pedal in case I had to regain control. Actually, I felt more anxiety letting go and wondering “what if” than actually driving myself. There are also several steps needed to set the vehicle up in DRIVE PILOT, which was akin to a pop quiz.
Currently available as a subscription option ($2,500 for the first year) on the 2024 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS sedan models, DRIVE PILOT takes over the dynamic driving tasks from the driver under certain conditions. For example, the roads must be dry and free from rain or snow, you can only activate DRIVE PILOT on the highway, vehicle speed cannot exceed 40 mph, lane markers must be visible, and a vehicle needs to be in front of you in congested traffic. Moreover, it cannot be engaged in darkness, winter temperatures, tunnels, or construction areas. You got it?
The main point I hear from auto executives promoting self-driving cars is to provide more time in our busy schedules. However, humans actually need to slow down in life and breathe deep as technology is taking precedence over our consciousness. I complete all my tasks before driving so I don’t feel pressured to rush from destination to destination. I also enjoy operating my ride while thinking and ruminating about solutions or finetuning my schedule. But, by all means, if tech and AI are your thing, then DRIVE PILOT and other systems such as GM’s Super Cruise are definitely for you.
“In the modern world, time is one of the most precious commodities, and giving back time to our customers is a core element in our strategy to build the world’s most desirable cars. Our DRIVE PILOT takes a major step forward in achieving that, and places us at the very forefront of innovation in the crucially important field of automated driving. DRIVE PILOT demonstrates once more that our pioneering spirit is part of our DNA. Certification in Nevada marks the start of its international rollout and, with it, the dawning of a new era.” Markus Schäfer, Member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Chief Technology Officer, responsible for Development and Procurement.
Functionally, DRIVE PILOT is engaged through buttons on both sides of the steering wheel and pulses while reflecting a turquoise light. The instrument cluster will showcase the system’s status and alert the driver if they need to take over for unforeseen reasons such as missing lane markers, construction zones, hitting the turn signal, or approaching emergency vehicles. Yes, DRIVE PILOT recognizes siren lights amongst other situational traffic scenarios utilizing its array of ultrasound sensors, radars, LiDAR, microphones, and high-precision positioning. In addition, a digital HD map provides three-dimensional imagery of the road and traffic patterns, including route characteristics, traffic signs, unusual traffic events, and road geometry. Suppose the driver does not take back control when prompted. In that case, DRIVE PILOT will assume an emergency like unconsciousness, and the vehicle will slow down in its lane and eventually stop while activating the hazards. Next, the EQS or S-Class will call emergency responders and unlock the doors.
As with any engineered product like smartphones, the software can fail or defects can make a system inoperable. I asked the M-B team about this and they reaffirmed that DRIVE PILOT is engineered with a redundant on-board electrical system and redundant steering and braking actuators so the vehicle is still operable if one of these systems fails. Thus, a safe exchange of control to the driver will be ensured.
So, are you ready for Mercedes-Benz DRIVE PILOT to take over specific driving responsibilities while you meditate or increase your workload? I’m personally not there yet, but the technology is, if you call upon it!