Auto Tech

Going Hands-Free With Mercedes' Drive Pilot Promises a More Relaxed Future

This Level 3 system will be available in the United States later this year, allowing drivers to stream video or play games while on the highway.

Hey, you got games in your car?
Mercedes-Benz

I'm in the front passenger seat of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, streaming a video of chief designer Gordon Wagener talking about the car. Normally that wouldn't be newsworthy, except I'm watching the video on the S-Class' central infotainment screen, and the driver is watching it, too. We're testing out Mercedes' Drive Pilot, the world's first Level 3 hands-free assistance system to gain regulatory approval for production, and it's got me excited for a more relaxing future.

This specific S-Class is a Euro-spec S580 named Adele that's been in use around Los Angeles for months as a validation prototype, gaining data on the roads and fine-tuning the system. There are only a few giveaways from the outside that this S-Class has Drive Pilot: A pair of lidar sensors integrated into the grille, a small hump at the back of the roof that houses antennas and a rear-facing camera in the back window. This test car has some extra cameras on the interior for recording drives, a trunk full of electronics and special software, but the Drive Pilot tech itself is exactly like what will be available to consumers.

Lidar sensors at the grille are one of the biggest tells that Drive Pilot is equipped.

Mercedes-Benz

As with systems like Ford's BlueCruise and General Motors' Super Cruise, Drive Pilot will only work on approved stretches of highway at speeds of up to 40 mph. When the car prompts the driver that Drive Pilot can be turned on through messages in the digital gauge cluster, it's activated with a press of either of the new buttons at the 10 and 2 marks on the steering wheel. (Both buttons do the same thing, Mercedes just put two on for symmetry's sake.) Lights above the steering wheel buttons then illuminate turquoise along with a light strip on the steering column, and the gauge cluster and augmented reality head-up display have unique displays that highlight cars around you and show related info. Turquoise was chosen to differentiate the Drive Pilot appearance from Mercedes' Level 2 systems, which use green. 

Unlike when using a Level 2 system such as the adaptive cruise control in existing Mercedes models, if you've got Drive Pilot on you can't actually do anything without the system shutting off. No touching of the pedals, no turning of the steering wheel, no tap of the turn signal stalk. You can't even adjust the follow distance to the car ahead like with adaptive cruise. Drive Pilot is designed to be activated in a suitable lane and then completely left alone, with the car handling everything itself. Plus, with the speed limit being just 40 mph it's meant for lower-speed driving and traffic jams where not much maneuvering is necessary anyway.

It's activated by a pair of buttons on the steering wheel.

Mercedes-Benz

The route we take hits some actual traffic jams, and Drive Pilot works like a champ. Unlike a lot of existing Level 2 systems it's not at all twitchy or jerky, either in terms of acceleration and braking or movement within the lane. It handles large trucks and other cars merging in front of the car well, and in a few instances where cars ahead make sudden stops the S-Class smoothly decelerates without invoking panic. Because the driver really is not involved when Drive Pilot is turned on, it makes sitting in slow and annoying traffic much less stressful.

But beyond just reducing fatigue, the real appeal of Drive Pilot is that it lets you genuinely take your eyes off the road. Sadly, due to California laws, drivers aren't permitted to look at their phones even with a Level 3 system active, which means no TikTok scrolling while stuck in traffic -- unless Mercedes creates an in-car TikTok app, at least. The car has a driver-facing camera that tracks eye and facial movement, so it'll prompt you turn off Drive Pilot if you start using your phone. But drivers can use the S-Class's infotainment screen to use web browsers, watch videos on YouTube or streaming services, play games like Tetris, or use messaging apps and email features. Mercedes says even more apps and functionalities will be added in the future.

Drive Pilot lets you watch videos while driving.

Mercedes-Benz

A Mercedes spokesperson tells me the biggest difference between "Level 2 that's trying to be something else" and an actual Level 3 setup like Drive Pilot is that the automaker accepts full liability for anything that happens while the system is activated. When the system is turned on the car is in control, and that means the driver needs to actively take control back. Drive Pilot won't turn itself off. When the car is approaching an area or road that it can't operate on it will start to prompt the driver to take back control, first through normal prompts and lights that gradually turn into louder and more intense warnings. If the driver still isn't taking back control, the car will safely bring itself to a stop and call emergency services.

The backbone of Drive Pilot is a massive amount of HD map data and a super-precise positioning system for the car, so the system always knows exactly where the vehicle is, even down to the lane. The HD map is made up of satellite data combined with info from each individual car's own sensors and Mercedes' extensive testing, which is all both stored in data centers and combined and compared with real-time data logged as you drive. This means the car always has extremely up-to-date info on accidents, construction, traffic, road surfaces, alternative routes and more, and there's enough redundancy in case the car's sensors get dirty. Approved roads in the US are pretty much exclusively major highways, and the system will currently only work in clear weather during the day, but as Drive Pilot launches and more areas are mapped out its operating parameters will expand to other types of roads and situations.

There's a host of new hardware.

Mercedes-Benz

8,197 miles of German roads are already approved, but mapping out highways and calibrating Drive Pilot in the US provided Mercedes' engineers with a whole host of issues not present in Germany. We have different types of construction zones, curbs, guard rails, lane markings, road signs and other visual and physical features, and even just the size and shape of our lanes and ramps are different. Larger vehicles like semi trucks are also different than in Europe, and cyclists and pedestrians are present on American highways. Plus, American drivers are more prone to bad behaviors like tailgating.

Another key to Drive Pilot working so successfully is the built-in redundancies. In addition to the lidar sensors and new cameras, Drive Pilot uses traditional radar, ultrasonic sensors and a road moisture sensor, as well as a camera monitoring the driver's eyes and facial movements. The trio of lidar, radar and cameras means that if one fails the system can still work using the others, albeit not as perfectly. The car also has duplicates of important components like the electronic power steering in the event that they fail, so the car won't be rendered dangerous. In-car microphones and the rear-facing camera watch and listen for emergency vehicles and sirens and will warn the driver to take back control to get out of the way.

Drive Pilot will be available on the S-Class and EQS in Germany within the next few months, and it will hopefully be offered in California and Nevada by the end of the year. There's no word on pricing yet, but expect the system itself to cost close to five digits, and it can't be retrofitted to cars without the hardware. While Drive Pilot may be limited in scope initially, this first taste has me excited to get stuck in traffic in the future.