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Mercedes-Benz unveils connected, self-driving concept car

The self-driving capsule-like vehicle is 17 feet long and 5 feet tall, and keeps passengers connected to the outside world.

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Mercedes-Benz's F015 concept vehicle can be operated by any passenger or driven autonomously. Josh Miller/CNET

Mercedes-Benz is taking a long look on cars that can drive themselves.

Highlighting its vision for autonomous driving, the German automaker on Monday unveiled the F015 Luxury in Motion, an electric concept vehicle that drives itself while allowing passengers to stay connected to the world outside the car.

During an onstage presentation unveiling the vehicle at the 2015 International CES in Las Vegas, Dieter Zetsche, the chairman of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, said the vehicle was geared toward future roads populated with "exclusive cocoons on wheels."

"Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society," Zetsche said. "The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space."

The capsule-like F015 sports an elongated body that measures 17 feet in length while only 5 feet in height. Central to the body design is a long windshield that morphs into a sunroof as the single pane of glass swoops over the vehicle's roof.

Large 26-inch wheels are pushed to the far corners of the vehicle to maximize passenger space, Zetsche said. Passengers sit in pedestal seats that automatically rotate 30 degrees when the carriage-style doors are opened.

Keeping passengers connected to the world outside the car's interior is a key feature. Six high-resolution touch-screen display panels on the doors allow passengers to use touch, gestures, or eye movements to navigate, browse, or see outside the car.

Zetsche said the F015 is capable of being used as an autonomous vehicle or piloted by a human. While under the pseudo auto-pilot, LED lights in the vehicle's grill light up and can project a crosswalk on the street to let pedestrians know it's safe to cross.

The F015 highlights the growing focus within the automobile industry on tech-assisted driving. While autonomous vehicle development is still largely in its early stages, Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas predicted last year that a "utopian society" will be achieved by 2026 in which liability, infrastructure and consumer acceptance issues will be overcome to allow for 100 percent autonomous vehicle penetration.

"Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction," Jonas wrote in a research note to clients. "They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think."

With that vision of the future in mind, Google has been experimenting with the notion of a self-driving car since 2009, logging more than 700,000 test miles on the robo-cars. A fully functional prototype that Google unveiled last month uses built-in sensors and a software system to safely maneuver the vehicle rather than a steering wheel and accelerator and brake pedals.

While Google has been at the forefront of developing and testing self-driving technologies, it's not alone in its driverless vision for the future. Nissan, General Motors, and automotive supplier Continental expect self-driving cars on the road by 2020. Ford Motor Co. has unveiled a self-driving prototype car. Telsa Motors wants its system to handle 90 percent of driving duties by 2016 -- a more aggressive schedule and one that's more like what Google has said is attainable.

Mercedes Benz has already rolled out a few assisted driving features, pioneering adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to detect the speed of any cars ahead and match that speed if it is slower than the speed set for cruise control. Mercedes introduced another near-autonomous feature last year called Steering Assist that uses stereoscopic cameras to detect the location of lane lines.

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