The first hands-free, eyes-off driver assistance system allowed for sale in the United States is here. Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot technology has beaten competition from Tesla, General Motors and Ford to the punch.
Drive Pilot is considered a Level 3 conditionally automated driving system by SAE International, a professional organization that develops standards for the automotive industry. That level indicates that the system can fully operate the drive functions of a vehicle when certain conditions have been met. These include the vehicle’s location, roadway type, full “visibility” from the car’s sensing systems and speed and driver behavior, among other things.
The system requires a driver to be safely operating the vehicle, activate the system, and the technology’s condition checkboxes to have all be met before it initiates.
A Level 3 system is not autonomous. Drivers must be ready to take control of the vehicle when prompted to do so by the system. If they fail to do so, the Mercedes will safely slow to a stop in the lane of travel and emergency services will be called via on-board technology.
Drive Pilot has been available in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan and EQS Sedan in Germany for a year. Before it could make it to the U.S., the technology needed refining due to the number of lane marking types, condition of roadways and distinct driving styles of Americans. Guide rails, curbs, lane width curvatures, multi-level freeways, carpool lanes, motorcycle lane splitting and differently shaped vehicles rank among the most common issues according to the automaker.
Before its market launch in the U.S., Mercedes worked with a number of stakeholders to ensure the technology, consumers and government were confident in its abilities.
The technology is new on many fronts, Markus Shäfer, member of the Board of Management of Mercedes‑Benz Group AG and Chief Technology Officer, told Newsweek during a media roundtable ahead of the product’s launch, explaining that laws regarding hands-free, eyes-off technology are being written in parallel with Drive Pilot coming to market.
“The key for for us, is what we call the user interaction and the user journey,” he said. The Drive Pilot user experience is inclusive of four elements: sounds, buttons, displays and lighting. They work together with drive- and powertrain components to create the Drive Pilot system.
Mercedes intends to have the car display teal lighting around the model when it is operating in its full Drive Pilot capabilities as a means of alerting other drivers and emergency services that the driver is not in full control of the vehicle and their behavior inside the car may demonstrate that.
For example, drivers who engage Drive Pilot in states where they’re not allowed to hold their smartphone while behind the wheel, may be able to use the phone while Drive Pilot is doing the heavy lifting. This is contingent on state law. The system allows this level of disengagement from the driver.
“Safety of the customer is in the center of everything,” Shaffer told the gathered journalists. “We did lots of studies, lots of studies with customers and our engineers around the world, in different regions… just to get feedback that the customer always safely knows and securely knows, in which moment [of driving style they are in].”
Drive Pilot can only be used in California and Nevada on major freeways. But, that doesn’t mean that the cars it is installed on are limited in their operation. The technology is geofenced to those areas in those states. Opening the technology up to other areas could be as simple as an over-the-air update, once those states allow it.
“So this is a major, major step we’re taking here. And it’s a step. And it’s the first step,” Shäfer said. Adding that the plan for next year is to increase the allowable speed (currently 40 miles per hour (mph)) at which Drive Pilot can operate, up to 55 mph.
Drive Pilot will be available for activation on appropriately equipped models via the Mercedes Me app for a $2,500 per year subscription fee beginning in late 2023.
The company confirmed to Newsweek that the technology is not expected to come to its EQS SUV anytime soon.
How does Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot work?
Drive Pilot uses around-the-car technology to stay functional. That includes a camera for optical image capture in a three-dimensional environment, interior microphones to detect emergency vehicle sirens, lidar to sense surroundings, radar to measure distance and speed, a road moisture sensor, driver camera to detect driver attentiveness, ultrasonic sensors to detect sonic impulses and measure surrounding vehicles, an antenna array that provides accurate positions and a rear camera to detect emergency vehicles.
Additionally, the car comes with redundant technology including steering and wheel rotation sensors, and braking system.
These technologies are designed to work in tandem, and go above and beyond the typical driver assistance and safety suite of tech that comes with a Mercedes under the Intelligent Drive package umbrella.
Drive Pilot is designed to operate in what some call “chamber of commerce weather”. It won’t activate if it’s raining or snowing, nor when it’s dusk, dawn, or nighttime. It also won’t work in construction zones.
Newsweek was invited to be among the first to test the new Drive Pilot system on California roads.
Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot U.S. Review
The journey to hands-free, eyes-off driving in the EQS Sedan started deep in the bowels of a parking garage in Santa Monica, California. There, adjacent to the San Andres Fault, a team of engineers awaited their driver partners, ready to show off the results of their years of hard work.
After climbing behind the wheel, the engineers started the journey with a video presentation on the car’s centrally located infotainment touch screen, mimicking the experience the user will have upon their introduction to the car.
The seven-minute video, which is mandatory to watch before Drive Pilot can be operated, is part of a larger education and safety initiative by Mercedes that includes dealership and customer service personnel training, and a specific Drive Pilot website full of resources for users. The video is easy to understand, with crisp visuals and succinct descriptions of the system operation that are able to be clearly followed.
From there, it was up the ramps and out onto the streets of Santa Monica, then onto U.S. Route 10, a major freeway that links the Pacific coast to downtown Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before we encountered what would constitute heavy rush hour-like traffic in most cities but what L.A. calls “par for the course”.
When conditions have been met for the system to be activated, white lights appear on the designated in-steering wheel buttons that are located at the 10 and 2 o’clock position. It’s not a bright light, but eye-catching enough. Pressing the button activates the system and when it’s fully operable, the white changes to a teal glow.
The screen in front of the driver gives appropriate prompts throughout this process, including a screen pop-up message that reads “Be prepared to take over. Take control of vehicle when prompted. Confirm with OK button.” as the system initiates.
At low speeds it’s instinctive to trust the system to do the work. Frankly, I’ve driven with my knee while licking an ice cream cone that’s about to drip and fiddling with a napkin at higher speed in far less safe conditions, and felt just as fine.
Where it excels is in the gray areas. In stop-and-go traffic, there’s often bits where a driver might get rolling at, say 50 mph, for brief moment, then have to stop. When traffic opens up, the system doesn’t require you to take control. Instead, it allows for a buffer zone, maintaining its maximum allowable speed and slowing appropriately when the slowed or stopped traffic ahead is encountered.
It’s one of those thoughtful allowances that clearly was brought to market through hundreds of hours of real world testing and one of those intangibles that can only come to light outside of a lab.
Like any technology, though, Drive Pilot is not infallible. There were moments when it failed, when it was not immediately apparent as to why. When that happened, the safe hand-off from computer to driver was achieved in an intuitive way through audible and visual alerts.
Unlike with adaptive or traditional cruise control, a driver cannot just accelerate above the 40 mph set limit while the system is engaged and then allow it to re-engage when the speed drops back below 40 mph. This is an behavior change that some drivers may have to take some time to get used to.
The biggest takeaway from the Drive Pilot experience is that it is incredibly boring. Despite scrolling through a series of Tom Cruise YouTube videos on the center screen while sitting in traffic for entertainment, it makes this driving enthusiast thankful that we are still at a point where we can choose when our driving will be automated, and when we can put the pedal down on the EQS, exit I-10 and set out for dynamic carving on Mulholland.