Levels of autonomous driving are now commonplace in modern cars, from adaptive cruise control and lane centring to braking and parking but all require you to be alert and ready to take back control. Level 3 automation is different. With this, not only can you let go of the steering wheel but you can legally take your gaze away from what’s happening on the road. That means you can watch a movie, play a game or if you really want to, do some work.
The Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot is a Level 3 system and is available on the Mercedes EQS and Mercedes S-Class models in Germany and the US state of Nevada. It’s also expected to be cleared for use in California later this year.
Drive Pilot works at speeds of up to 40mph on roads with at least two lanes on each side and either a central barrier or area of separation. That means motorways or autobahns – highways or freeways in the US. That’s perfect for times when you’re stuck in traffic and means rather than staring at the bumper of the car in front, you can make use of the car’s entertainment system.
Next year in Germany, that top speed is expected to rise to 55mph (80kmh) but Mercedes is aiming to reach 80mph (130kmh) with its new MB.OS and Nvidia technology that’s coming in vehicles from 2025. That would allow for all motorway driving to be done with Level 3 autonomy as well as inner city driving.
I got the chance to experience Drive Pilot in Sunnyvale, California, the home of the Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, with one of its test drivers. As the car got into traffic, the lights on the steering wheel illuminated to show Drive Pilot was available and with the dedicated steering wheel button pressed, the lights changed to turquoise to confirm that it was now active.
With Drive Pilot engaged you can see the graphics in the driver’s screen monitoring the cars around you while you can leave it to it. The MBUX system provides access to streaming movies, and simple games such as Tetris and Pairs. The new generation of MBUX, expected later this year will offer a wider range of games, video conferencing through WebEx and Zoom, and even TikTok.
The system worked perfectly, keeping the car rolling along in the northern Californian daytime traffic. If there are any problems, the car alerts you to take over control, giving you 10 seconds to respond before bringing the car to a complete stop. You can also choose to take over control yourself by moving the steering wheel or pressing on the accelerator.
Right now the Drive Pilot system doesn’t offer any lane-changing options, and can’t be used on the on or off-ramps, however, this is likely to change as the system is updated in coming years. The top speed of 40mph also means that unless the traffic is really bad, you could be taking back over control sooner than your thought.
The one thing you can’t do with Drive Pilot is fall asleep. The car will still monitor your blink rate to make sure you are awake and able to step in if needed. If it detects you’re falling asleep, it will ask you to take back control or bring you to a stop.
Being able to properly take your eye off the road though, even for these periods of traffic could make a big difference to your commute. I find the advantage of travelling by train to the office, is that I can get some work done on the journey. If I was able to check emails and even do a little work while sat in traffic in the car, it would be even better.
For me, Drive Pilot is the first autonomous system that looks to be a real step towards that dream of self-driving cars. I can easily see this in the next five years being able to take care of whole journeys from home to work, and that for me will be the perfect commute.