The War For Autonomous Driving: 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class VS. 2017 Tesla Model S

It’s a DrivePilot vs. AutoPilot cage match fight to the death—potentially yours.

Self-Driving Cars

Looking for a comparison of the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the 2016 Tesla Model S? This is not that. Both are brilliant, gorgeous cars—best-of-breed luxury sedans in the war between internal combustion and electricity—but who cares?

The future belongs to Autonomous Driving.

The 2017 E-Class is the first Mercedes-Benz available with Drive Pilot—the brand name for their latest semi-Autonomous Driving (AD) suite—and is the first direct assault on Tesla’s Autopilot, which has captured the public’s imagination, for better or worse, since its release in 2015.

What is AD? It’s what happens when you combine Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) with Automatic Steering, and then a car begins to drive itself. How long, how well and how safely it does this is the difference between today and tomorrow, between semi-Autonomous and truly Self-Driving Cars.

Does Mercedes' Drive Pilot deliver what it calls The Best or Nothing? Or is Autopilot—despite recent controversy—still the state-of-the-semi-Autonomous-art?

That depends on your expectations.

The Difference Between Parachutes And Autonomous Driving: Expectations

The nice thing about parachutes is that there actually are parachute standards, courtesy of the Parachute Industry Association. A parachute works, or it doesn’t.

No such standard exists for AD.

In order to compare apples, we need to know what an apple is, and what they’re supposed to taste like. Here’s how the National Highway Transportation & Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines AD, greatly simplified:

Level 1 - You drive. ABS and Traction Control may back you up.

Level 2 - Car can drive some of the time. Be ready to take over anytime.

Level 3 - Car can drive much of the time. Be ready to take over, with advance warning.

Level 4 - Car can drive all of the time. Passengers can nap.

According to NHTSA, Levels 2/3 are semi-Autonomous, and Level 4 is fully Autonomous, but no manufacturer wants to market cars based that on language. As soon as the words AutonomousSelf-Driving or Driverless enter a customer’s mind, product liability looms, so manufacturers lump everything under ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, which is just a legal and PR hedge against having to slot into the NHTSA definitions. What they want to sell you is Drive Pilot, or Pilot Assist, or Piloted Driving, or Super Cruise, merely four out of a dozen suggestive yet meaningless marketing terms.

Where does Tesla Autopilot slot into the NHTSA Levels? The car company's site suggests Level 2, and most owners in the know would agree. Those who allegedly crashed using Autopilot certainly thought it was Level 3. Tesla has never claimed Autopilot is anything more than ADAS, but given its buzz—and the connotations of its branding to an unfamiliar public—their modesty could be seen as disingenuous.

What about Mercedes' Drive Pilot? Right now, there aren’t enough users to ask. But if you were to look at Mercedes-Benz’s schizophrenic marketing campaign, you'd probably get the wrong idea. The site suggests it's Level 2/ADAS, but early ads refer to the new E-class as a Self-Driving Car, as in Level 4.

That would be a fully Self-Driving Car.

Given how much Tesla has been pilloried over naming their suite Autopilot, the purveyors of The Best or Nothing have some very big shoes to fill.

A Parachute Is Worthless If You Don’t Put It On Before Jumping Out

In the final analysis, safety is the only metric that counts, but here’s a Catch-22: no matter how much safer the technology, consumers have to:

  1. Trust it
  2. Understand how it works
  3. Want to use it

If consumers don’t trust it, they won’t pay for it. If they don’t understand how to use it, something may go wrong. If they don’t want to use it, the technology is worthless.

Character: The Missing Test

Other AD comparisons have focused on testing the performance of individual components of ADAS. That’s like judging soup by eating the ingredients before adding water. We have to assume the braking, acceleration and steering will each be executed more safely than if the average person were in control. If not, the system is worthless.

The missing test is behavioral. It’s about character. The instant a car begins to steer itself, a relationship is formed. AD is more than the sum of its parts. No AD can be judged solely by measuring its individual subcomponents, just like you can’t guarantee the outcome of a UFC match by the stats. AD suites have different characters, and they better be good ones, or someone unqualified to drive is going to break up with their car.

In a semi-Autonomous world, how we drive, and how we expect AD to drive us, has as much effect on our safety as the performance of the individual component technologies. The only standard that matters is understanding, between manufacturer and customer, customer and car, and car and conditions.

Here we go...

Autopilot: Situational Awareness

The Tesla’s display is the heart of the relationship between Autopilot and its user. Everything the car sees, the driver can see. If the lane lines are blue, the car can see them. If one or both turn grey, the driver will likely have to take over. Cars and trucks are indicated as cars and trucks. Walls, curbs and unknown objects are color coded based on distance:

If a vehicle ahead turns blue, Autopilot will track it and remain engaged even in the absence of lane markings, up to a point.

The Autopilot display—entertaining to the novice—is confidence inspiring to the veteran user. Imperfect but essential, it is inconceivable one could safely use Autopilot without it.

Autopilot: Voluntary Engagement & Disengagement

Engagement is simple. When the small steering wheel to the right of the speedometer lights up in gray, two pulls on a stalk to the left of the steering wheel engages Autopilot, two pleasant audible tones sound out, and the wheel icon turns blue.

Disengagement is also very easy. Push the stalk, tap the brakes or tug even slightly on the steering wheel, and Autopilot will disengage. The blue steering wheel icon turns gray, and two downbeat tones sound.

Autopilot: Steering

Very good. This is Tesla’s crowning achievement. In perfect conditions it tracks lane markings and remains centered better than I would. It does such a good job, one shouldn't linger near exit lanes, because it may track right off the road. Anyone who wants to live will only let this happen once.

It also shouldn’t work as well as it does at night or in weather, which is why some users grow overconfident and get in trouble.

Most interestingly, the slightest steering input will disengage Autopilot altogether, which is both annoying and yet reassuring. As a result, Autopilot is very much ON or OFF, which eliminates any confusion as to how the car will react to driver inputs, or lack thereof.

Autopilot: Hands-Off Interval

In perfect conditions, Autopilot will drive itself as long as...that’s unclear. Tesla won’t say, but in my experience the average is about six minutes, after which you get...

Autopilot: Warnings & Involuntary Disengagement

Pretty straightforward, but not good enough. Visual warnings appear onscreen and tones will sound. If music is playing, it will be interrupted. I’ve never missed these warnings, and it’s hard to understand how one could, but this isn’t even the biggest problem.

It’s entirely possible for Autopilot to remain engaged until the last possible moment, then provide a warning and disengage precisely when an unready driver is least able to take over.

Has this happened to me? Once. If conditions are perfect, even I relax, but with one eye always on the road. If conditions are imperfect, my hands hover by the wheel.

There are two solutions here: 1) MUCH larger, louder warnings about keeping your hands on the wheel, and 2) geo-fencing Autopilot based on location and conditions.

Autopilot: Upgradeability

A big, lonely win for Tesla Autopilot here. Every Tesla is networked and sharing both driving and environmental data back to the Tesla cloud. Using what they call Fleet Learning, Tesla makes constant improvements to Autopilot’s logic using wireless (OTA) updates, which are free. Drive the same road weeks or months apart, and Autopilot will behave differently.

Massively confidence inspiring. Well done, well done.

Drive Pilot: Situational Awareness

I suppose, if Drive Pilot turned the E-class into a Self-Driving Car as some of their ads claim, what I’m about to say wouldn’t matter. If you want to know what your car sees, or whether it’s safe to engage Drive Pilot, or how soon one should disengage, this is a disaster.

There is one small indication of what Drive Pilot sees, and it appears on the bottom right of the E-class’s gorgeous dash, right below the temperature gauge. From time to time. It’s so small one can’t glean any useful information from it, and it barely drove itself long enough for me to safely snap a picture. Hence, no picture.

(UPDATE 7/28: Commenter "osiz" claims Drive Pilot's has a Situational Awareness display that can be activated via the "assistance graphic option" on the left touch pad. I was unable to find such an option despite repeated attempts. No one at Mercedes Manhattan or MB support was sufficiently familiar with Drive Pilot to discuss it, and no information was available on their website when they attemped to research it at the dealership. Even if such a display exists, the fact that it is not standard when Drive Pilot is engaged highlights the catastrophic safety problem with its interface. Situational Awareness is central to the driver's relationship with the car when the system is engaged. Not only should the default display setting be ON when Drive Pilot is engaged, the driver should not be allowed to turn the display off.) 

When it comes to Situation Awareness, Drive Pilot gets a zero.

Drive Pilot: Voluntary Engagement & Disengagement

Another disaster. One never really decides to engage Drive Pilot. You press two buttons on the left side of the dash, one for Distronic Cruise Control, the other for Automatic Steering, then press a button on the left side of the steering wheel, then, — when Drive Pilot decides conditions are suitable — it engages.

Is there an audible sound? None that I heard. Like Autopilot, a green steering wheel icon illuminates on the bottom center of the display, and is duplicated in the Heads-Up Display.

Engagement is made clear by the car’s instant and unsafe wandering in all but perfect conditions, and often in perfect conditions.

Level 4? This is barely Level 2.

Disengagement? Press the button on the wheel or tap the brakes. Unlike with Autopilot, placing your hands on the wheel and steering doesn’t instantly disengage Drive Pilot. I suppose this is intended as a method of allowing the user to guide Drive Pilot by making course corrections, but instead it resulted in an unwanted and stressful upper arm workout, without which I’d have been killed.

I felt a lot safer jerking the wheel and disengaging Drive Pilot altogether.

Drive Pilot: Hands-Off Interval

I got the Drive Pilot to “drive” itself for as long as sixty seconds, which is as along as Mercedes-Benz deems it safe. Trust me, you don’t want to take your hands off the wheel that long unless your car’s on fire and you’re reaching for a fire extinguisher, and even then.

Drive Pilot: Warnings & Involuntary Disengagement

Drive Pilot had a nasty habit of disengaging in good conditions before sixty seconds were up, with no obvious warning except the green steering icon going out, and lane drift. After the third time, I actually felt fear.

If you do let the car drive itself for as long as sixty seconds, you get audible and visual warnings similar to Autopilot's, which still aren't good enough.

If you want to get home in one piece, you’ll keep your hands on the wheel anyway, and none of this will matter. Trust me, you don't want to take your hands off the wheel for long, because...

Drive Pilot: Steering

Another disaster. This is actually a dangerous product. The car will steer itself into oncoming traffic. It oscillates between lane markings like a drunk driver. No setting or speed is sufficient to compensate for the utter failure of this functionality.

Did anyone in Stuttgart drive a Tesla on Autopilot? Even once?

People need to be fired. Think I’m being harsh? Here’s another direct comparison between Drive Pilot and Autopilot, from Norway’s Autofil. Scroll down to the pictures comparing the two cars' lane keeping. Need more convincing? Here's Wired's take. Still don't believe me? Video is coming soon, via Drive on NBC Sports.

Drive Pilot: Upgradeability

None, according to Mercedes-Benz, at least not for cars already in customers' hands. I’m not sure I believe them. It’s Mercedes-Benz. This level of product cannot stand. They have to update this, even if they don’t tell anyone.

Verdict

Drive Pilot: The only good thing about Drive Pilot is that your Mercedes will protect you from it. Did I trust it? Only at a crawl. Did I understand it? I don’t understand how Mercedes-Benz could release this to the public. I hated literally everything about it. It drove like a drunk ten year old, fighting for the wheel with a drunk fourteen year old. It was, in most conditions, dangerous.

Driver Assist? Meet Driver Persist.

As intrusive as it is incompetent, Drive Pilot is a dead end as Level 2 AD, and a catastrophe as anything more. Is it safer? You’ll suffer through an upper body workout waiting to find out. I hated it so much, I didn’t want to use it. If you don’t use it, it can’t make you safer, ergo, it’s useless, and you’re only as safe as your skill, just like everyone else for the last 100+ years.

If you want The Best or Nothing, get an E-class without Drive Pilot, and take advantage of the myriad other safety systems Mercedes-Benz offers standard. Most of them are invisible until the moment of truth, when their expertise in ADAS will pay off.

Everyone knows Mercedes-Benz could crush Tesla in AD, but it clearly requires a cultural shift they’ve yet to make. Drive Pilot was clearly hobbled, for legal and political reasons, and so instead we have to settle for The Best...or This.

Come on, Merc. We all know you can do better.

Could they enable wireless updates for Drive Pilot? Theoretically, but apparently updates and/or upgrades won’t occur until the next model cycle, which is years away. It makes no sense. The E-class has cellular and wi-fi connections. Drive Pilot is just software. It could be updated during service. But that would require better software, which requires better data, which requires data capture on a mass scale, which requires networking, which requires a platform like...

Verdict

Autopilot: I loved it. A few hours in and one begins to learn a dance between looking out the window, looking at the display and using the stalk to manage speed. Once mastered, the pedals become largely unnecessary. It drives like a very good second year teenage license holder who really wants impress, and is getting better all the time.

It's definitely safer than a human driver alone, assuming you use it as intended. Without a doubt, it is the best ADAS system on the market. It’s incredible Level 2, but also a facsimile of Level 3 without sufficient advance warnings, which is where problems have risen. Ignore the warnings like a child and you will be disappointed, or worse. Heed the warnings like an adult, and it’s the best thing on the market.

“Never assume,” my father often said, “and always pay attention.”

Much like life.

The more you use Autopilot, the better it gets — literally — and the more you want to use it. Exploiting Autopilot’s capabilities is a delight in itself, as one returns to roads one knows only to find it has learned something new. In and around Ojai I observed it navigate the same road months apart, and the improvements weren’t subtle. It slowed to below the speed limit, and I trusted it, because the volume of Teslas in the area suggested Fleet Learning had taught it a lesson this New Yorker didn’t know, and didn’t want to learn the hard way.

Could it be improved? Of course. And it is improving, all the time. Autopilot 8 is allegedly a month or three away. Let’s hope it includes louder alerts, an even larger Situational Awareness Display, and geo-fencing.

What else does it need? Article coming. #Soon

(Thanks to Mike Spinelli of The/Drive & Drive On NBCSports for all their support, and providing the cars.)

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.