A Mercedes-Benz F 015 autonomous driving automobile.
Photograph by David Becker—Getty Images
By Cyrus Sanati
January 6, 2015

At a splashy event on Monday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler, unveiled Mercedes’ vision of the ultimate driving machine, a car that drives itself. But while the F-015 autonomous driving vehicle is beautiful in so many ways, it is still just a concept car that looks straight out of an auto show from the early 1990s. Mercedes and others have proven that cars can drive themselves, so it is time to take the next step and present a vehicle to the public that has some chance of actually getting built.

The line to attend the Mercedes-Benz CES keynote Monday night stretched from the East to the West towers of the Cosmopolitan Resort and Spa on the Vegas Strip. Attendees got more than they bargained for—a brand new concept car, the Mercedes-Benz F-015 autonomous driving vehicle.

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The F-015 model, presumably named as such to make it the German car maker’s first “F-Class” vehicle, had a sleek and shiny silver exterior reminiscent to the sheen on a baby seal. The interior was all white leather and had four movable chairs, two in the front and two in the back. The two front chairs could swivel 180 degrees to face the back seat, instantly turning the car into a kind of horseless carriage.

The driver’s seat faces a steering wheel, but it didn’t need to be used. This car could drive itself. There weren’t any buttons on the car, either. The driver, or even the passengers, if such a distinction exists in such a car, could control the F-015 using free-floating gestures, swiping the air like they would a touch-based tablet.

A car reveal this big is normally reserved for international auto shows, not a trade show like CES. Indeed, this is the first time an auto manufacturer has unveiled a new car at the gigantic electronics trade show.

But upon closer inspection of the F-015, it becomes clear why it was revealed in Vegas and not Geneva. It’s not a car. Rather, it is a computer on wheels.

The two members of the F-015’s design team that Zetsche introduced were based not in Stuttgart, home to Mercedes’ engineers for over a century, but Silicon Valley, suggesting that it will be the brains of cars, not the mechanics, that will drive auto engineering in the 21st century.

Mercedes believes that increasing traffic and car demand in urban areas will transform how we use cars. Zetsche said that cars will become exclusive mobile homes, “cocoons on wheels,” where passengers can relax in solitude after a long day. So, the structure of the car will need to change to allow more room for passengers to relax, sort of like a bathtub.

The F-015 is impressive, but it is a concept. Mercedes says that they are confident that they will “shortly” be able to make a business case for an autonomous driving car, taking the idea from technically feasible to commercial viable. But what is holding them back now? Mercedes has a tradition of breaking boundaries when it comes to auto tech, from airbags to fuel injection.

The time has come for Mercedes to introduce autonomous driving as an option on their cars currently in production. Such a bold move would push other car manufacturers to follow suit, paving the way for mass adoption of autonomous driving. If Mercedes doesn’t step up, then it will almost certainly be run over by someone who will.

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