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Autonomous in America

The new E-Class: the world's most intelligent car? (Photo: Daimler)

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Ready for when the day comes: The next Mercedes E-Class is aiming to push the boundaries of assisted driving that little bit further with its new “Drive Pilot”. The W213 series is dubbed the world’s most intelligent car to date; its developers have been able to be driven for miles under the revolutionary Drive Pilot without even touching the wheel. The customers, however, will have to abide by stricter regulations.

When the new Mercedes E-Class rolled the final few meters to its world premiere at the Detroit Motor Show this week, there was still a helping hand at the wheel. But when the star of the show starts to roll on our roads in April, the driver will increasingly become like a passenger.

The W213 series sees Mercedes combine numerous driver assistance systems in the so-called Drive Pilot - thus inching closer to autonomous driving than any other model. Spending a day in the E-Class prototype with chief engineer Michael Kelz and cruising almost driverlessly through the vast American West, even left Tesla's Model S automated overtaking feature paling in comparison.

Basically, the sedan can do everything on its own. As soon as the limousine is on a road with separated carriageways, it keeps its lane and pace by itself, adhering to all speed limits. Moreover, the act of overtaking simply requires touching the indicator lever for two seconds. The E-Class then waits patiently for a sufficiently large gap, changes lane independently and cruises past the vehicle in front. After pulling the indicator lever again, the sedan returns to the original lane.

The world’s most intelligent limousine?

In addition, the car warns of potential collisions and not only brakes for pedestrians but also actively supports the driver to avoid them. And just to top it off, the new E-Class is the first series model that realizes vehicle-to-vehicle communication. This explains why Kelz proudly calls it the "world's most intelligent business limousine."

Too bad that strictly speaking, Kelz would have to use the subjunctive a lot more often to describe many of the car's competencies.

As long as existing legislation remains unchanged, responsibility continues to lie with the driver - and there are no exceptions, even for the E-Class. That is why the Mercedes will come complete with a detailed instruction manual with notes and information on restrictions. As a reminder of who's in charge, warning signals start flashing when hands come off the wheel for more than a couple of seconds. When Kelz doesn't react, the electronics raise an alarm just a few moments later and the vehicle starts braking - to a standstill if necessary.

The Drive Pilot cockpit. (Photo: Daimler)

The sedan is, however, easily soothed again: you don't even have to grab the steering wheel. It's enough to simply stroke over the new sensor buttons (resembling a Blackberry's trackpad) that are integrated in the wheel. At a single stroke you've won another couple of miles and minutes.

The technology carries more responsibility

Technically speaking, the German-made vehicle represents a remarkable upgrade. Mercedes has equipped the E-Class with the next generation of stereo cameras and radar sensors with a greater range and a broader perspective. They have doubled the processor power of the control units and they have replaced the CAN bus with a FlexRay system that is ten times faster.

But above all, they allow more room for the assistance systems and entrust them with more responsibility. The Drive Pilot functions at speeds between zero and 130 mph (210 km/h) and assisted overtaking works at speeds between 45 mph (70 km/h) and 110 mph (180 km/h). Mercedes has also extended the duration after which the car can start driving itself - with no driver input - to three seconds e.g. in stop and go traffic.

Kelz is as yet unsure if this will be the final version of the system. "We defined these basic parameters less than half a year before the world premiere." He goes on to describe the struggle surrounding laws, regulations and trust. But the E-Class is well prepared for possible amendments: the final version of the system will be installed shortly before the vehicle's release.

Cars will get updates just like smartphones

But even this might not be the ultimate implementation. With the E-Class, Mercedes is introducing an entirely new electronic architecture that can be updated in much shorter intervals, according to Sajjad Kahn, head of digitalization. And for the first time, this applies not only to new cars prior to delivery but also to vehicles already in the field: "In the future our cars will receive updates over the air - just like a smartphone," says Khan.

He leaves open whether such downloads will also be available for safety-related issues like driver assistance systems or if they will be limited to infotainment functions. However, with this technology, there is the possibility that Mercedes could respond to changes in legislation with security updates, e.g. by extending warning intervals or adjusting the speed range of the Drive Pilot.

Updating your car could be as easy as updating your smartphone. (Photo: Fotolia)

As of today, Chief engineer Kelz still has to consider such questions. But for the purpose of test driving the prototypes, different rules apply- especially in progressive US states like California or Nevada. On the route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, he sits back for miles and miles with his hands on his laps and his feet kept still. All the while the sedan rolls unflinchingly over the highway. The prototype takes the rare and gentle bends with ease. And when the camera has difficulty detecting the lane markings properly, the Drive Pilot simply follows on the heels of the car in front at speeds of up to 80 mph (130 km/h), relying on swarm intelligence.

Autonomous driving? Well, not officially

Even if Kelz has removed the term "autonomous" from his vocabulary - mostly for political reasons - and only speaks of "assistance" or "relief", the Drive Pilot is an obvious success. How else could he step out of the limousine after eight hours on the highway as relaxed as if he had just driven to the grocery store around the corner?

The comfortable test ride to Las Vegas comes at the right time for project leader Kelz. After all, the weeks leading up to the market launch bring tension galore - more so on the desk than on the road. Because with Daimler having made a bold statement with the Drive Pilot, Kelz now has to win the trust of regulators and request authorizations to use it in all its glory.

Until shortly before Christmas, such blessings had only come from Berlin and Washington. This means that outside of Germany and the USA, drivers will most likely have to take the steering wheel in their own hands much more often.

Mercedes calls the new E-Class "the world's most intelligent business limousine". What do you think? Discuss with the community!

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