Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) have taken their sweet time moving from regular cars to commercial vehicles, but several automakers with their hands in both have been leading the charge. Volvo's big-rig trucks now have automatic emergency braking, for example, but the 2019 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van goes above and beyond by adding a huge chunk of the ADAS found on M-B's cars.
While I was in Germany to drive the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, the automaker took us to Daimler's proving grounds in Stuttgart to experience the Sprinter's new ADAS firsthand. It might not have been a class of vehicle I was used to, but after digging into its tech, it felt like any other passenger car, which should be a good thing for the oodles of commercial-vehicle drivers out there.
Keep it safe, but don't keep it secret in the 2019 Mercedes-Benz SprinterSee all photos
Automatic braking, two ways
I will always instinctively cringe when barreling toward another car at speed, even in a controlled environment where the slower vehicle ahead is actually an inflatable pillow.
The 2019 Sprinter has not one, but two different automatic emergency braking systems. The standard AEB setup works with traffic traveling ahead of the van. To meet German requirements for the system, it will first emit an audible warning after finding a major speed differential between the two vehicles, followed by light braking to give the driver the opportunity to hit the brakes. If that doesn't happen, the Sprinter will eventually clamp down the stoppers on its own. It's a violent experience, as the tall-roof Sprinter leaned on its front axle, anti-lock brakes sending chattering and grinding noises into the cabin, but it worked perfectly.
The other system uses radar located in the rear bumper as part of its rear cross-traffic alert system. The radar can determine when a vehicle moving perpendicular to the Sprinter represents a crash risk. Since there are no regulations for how the rear-facing AEB engages, it will beep and almost immediately slam to a halt. The Sprinter did come close to the vehicle traveling behind, but once again, it managed to stop in time thanks to its fast-acting ABS.
Open-door warnings and Drive Away Assist
The 2019 Sprinter also has two less common systems you might not know about. The first is a door-exit warning that hopes to prevent the van's front doors from opening when an oncoming vehicle or bicyclist is detected. It doesn't actually prevent the door from opening, but the blind-spot monitor will flash as something approaches the van from behind, giving an audible warning if the driver still isn't paying attention and chooses to open the door anyway.
Drive Away Assist was completely new to me. Its goal is to help prevent collisions when leaving a parking space in the event a nearby item would impede the van's travel. If its parking sensors pick up on an item, even if it's outside the driver's line of sight, it will artificially limit the vehicle speed to 3 kilometers per hour (about 2 miles per hour), even if the driver jams the gas to the firewall.
Ideally, this would give the driver time to brake and avoid contacting the thing in its way. If the vehicle continues to move forward and contact the cone or car or whatever's in its path, the low vehicle speed should minimize or completely mitigate any potential damage.
Easier highway driving
Mercedes-Benz's Sprinter can also be optioned with a variant of the technology used to keep its passenger cars in their respective lanes. I tested the Sprinter's full-speed adaptive cruise control on Daimler's test track, and it worked flawlessly, following the vehicle ahead and smoothly braking to match speeds. It even worked around some awkward turns and a banked portion of the test track. If you've experienced adaptive cruise in a modern car, it's about the same on the Sprinter.
The van also packed active lane-keep assist, albeit a slightly different system than what I was used to. When the overhead camera determined the Sprinter was leaving its lane, it braked the opposite-side wheel to slowly guide the Sprinter back to its lane. There was a bit of ABS chattering, much like I experienced in the autobrake tests, which is the key differentiator from most modern LKA systems -- there is no active steering control in the Sprinter, so instead of manipulating the steering rack to return the van to its lane, it uses individual wheel braking. It's a little louder, but the result is the same.
Of course, a lack of active steering assist in the Sprinter means that a proper lane-holding system is not in the cards, like it is for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, but hey, it's better than nothin'.
Some cars feel difficult to position in a space without parking sensors. Commercial vans are even worse, especially if the rear windows are actually opaque metal panels. Thankfully, sensors and cameras have made this job nearly effortless.
To test out its camera and sensor systems, Mercedes put me into a Sprinter that had its rear windows, side mirrors and rearview mirror all blocked. I had to navigate a series of S-turns, in reverse, with nothing but the infotainment screen guiding the way. Thankfully, Mercedes-Benz's screen and camera combined to provide one of the best digital views across the industry, car or van.
I always knew where the van was positioned. In addition to the sensors blaring at me when I drove too close to one of the many cones on the ground, the Sprinter was optioned with its most expensive parking package, which adds a 360-degree, top-down view of the van. Combined with steering guidelines that let me know where the whole width of the vehicle was and would soon be, it wasn't too hard to string together a carnage-free path. Some surround-view systems disable the side cameras when the mirrors fold in, but not the Sprinter -- they're positioned to still provide views when the mirrors need to be folded during tight maneuvering. There was also a clever system that, upon opening the rear door, changed the screen to show that specific camera, in case some scofflaw is trying to jack whatever stuff is in the back.
Between the systems I experienced and all the other clever stuff hidden away under its skin, I believe the 2019 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter will be a serious force to be reckoned with. Driver-assistance tech isn't just for passenger cars.
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