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Tired of traffic jams? Mercedes plans autumn launch of self-driving feature for the Autobahn

July 16, 2021, 1:30 PM UTC

Mercedes-Benz is in talks with regulators to bring the first “eyes-off” self-driving feature to Germany’s Autobahn later this year, ahead of other rivals including Tesla.

Daimler’s premium brand aims to offer a highway pilot in its flagship S-Class sedan that in certain situations can assume full responsibility for operating the vehicle, freeing drivers from the legal obligation to keep their attention fixed on the road. The pilot will focus on stop-and-start traffic, rather than Autobahn-famous high speeds.

“We’re working with the authorities to safely introduce this technology, initially at speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour [37 mph],” said chief executive Ola Källenius at the PwC Digital Automotive Talk on Thursday.

This is not the first time Germany’s government has been quick to embrace one of the auto industry’s hottest trends. In May, both houses of Parliament passed legislation legalizing robotaxis for commercial use, one of the rare instances when policymakers didn’t lag behind innovation.

For over five years, automakers have been promising that self-driving cars were just around the corner, only to repeatedly delay their plans after underestimating the complexity of bringing the technology safely to market.

Audi initially aimed to launch the world’s first highway pilot in its A8 luxury sedan back in 2017, but the Volkswagen Group premium brand buried those ambitions last year and now anticipates offering automated driving only in the Artemis model that arrives in 2025.

Engineers have split the race to transform a conventional car into an autonomous vehicle into different stages. It starts with a Level 1 automatic cruise control that can maintain a set distance to traffic ahead and ends with a Level 5 robotaxi that requires no human intervention at all regardless of the prevailing conditions.

Level 3 is the dividing line, after which responsibility for the driving shifts from the human behind the wheel to the vehicle itself. This has prompted product liability concerns for auto industry executives, who prefer merely improving the technical capabilities of their driver assistance systems, since the legal risks remain squarely with the driver.  

No more hassle

With the rare exception of the Honda Legend in Japan, the most advanced features found in cars tend to be in this category, including Cadillac’s Super Cruise and the ninth iteration of Tesla’s FSD, which is currently undergoing beta testing by customers. 

Not only are these Level 2 systems capable of braking and accelerating on their own, they can steer as well. Nevertheless, they require constant human supervision at all times as they are legally designed only to assist the driver.

BMW hoped to introduce Level 3 features potentially even earlier than Mercedes. Last month, however, the German carmaker backed away from a pledge to offer it in the iX electric SUV that arrives in showrooms in November, and instead pushed back plans to an unspecified date in the midterm future, citing safety concerns.

The Drive Pilot on the Mercedes S-Class is mainly designed for stop-and-go traffic on the highway, when congestion brings speeds to a near crawl and operating the vehicle becomes a hassle. 

In this case, a driver can activate the function and legally be allowed under German law to take their eyes off the road, for example to surf the Internet, write emails, or read the news.

Should conditions change such that they exceed a vehicle’s designated operating parameters, it will alert the driver to reassume control shortly.

Daimler CEO Källenius said this offers customers a real benefit as they can relax, sit back, and enjoy the ride rather than suffer the aggravation of slow-moving traffic.

“You win back time, and time is possibly the most valuable currency bar none,” he said. “So we see an enormous potential here.”

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