Why I Plan to Reassess the Mercedes-Benz DrivePilot System

It didn't fare well in my head-to-head comparo with Tesla's Autopilot, but Mercedes contends I missed the point of the system. In the high-stakes world of semi-autonomous tech, a deeper dive is in order.

I’ll give Mercedes-Benz credit: I didn’t expect to hear from them after my recent story comparing their DrivePilot to Tesla’s Autopilot. I took a flamethrower to Stuttgart’s latest semi-autonomous driving technology, calling it a disaster—and, worse, potentially unsafe. In a world where manufacturers regularly attempt to sidestep bad press, Mercedes could easily have stayed silent.

Then, six days after Musk gloatingly retweeted the story, my phone rang.

I should note that it’s rare for a blatantly negative review to appear in the mainstream media for any consumer product, let alone about a juggernaut brand whose tagline is “The Best or Nothing.” When one does show up, it’s generally centered around criteria with little real-world impact—things like design, or zero-to-sixty times. Criticizing a major manufacturer for a perceived issue at the heart of their latest safety technology is basically unheard of.

Trust me, I didn’t want to go after Mercedes over DrivePilot, but they were asking for it. Early ads for the 2017 E-class stated it was “a self-driving car from a self-driven company.” I knew damn well it wasn’t a self-driving car before I wrote the piece—not only that, but no one I know within Mercedes ever claimed it to be self-driving—but someone at the ad agency didn’t know better, and once the ad ran, it was too late.

If autonomous driving is the future, customers have to understand why it’s better, and why they should pay for it. In a marketplace where Tesla’s Autopilot dominates the narrative, the onus is on Mercedes-Benz to educate their customers as to what DrivePilot actually does—and what it doesn’t do.

And that’s why Mercedes-Benz was calling. They knew their “self-driving car” ad was a mistake, and rather than pull a Toyota (or a GM) and try to ignore it, or litigate it, they pulled it instead. Mercedes-Benz USA director of communications Rob Moran explained the decision to me in an email:

“Given the claim that consumers could confuse the autonomous driving capability of the F015 concept car with the driver assistance systems of our new E-Class in our ad ‘The Future,’ we have decided to take this one ad out of the E-Class campaign rotation (it was scheduled to run for a little longer before being replaced). We do not want any potential confusion in the marketplace to detract from the giant step forward in vehicle safety the 2017 E-class represents.

“In all of our advertising, the driver’s hands are in close proximity to the wheel and there is a statement that (the) ‘Vehicle cannot drive itself, but has semi-automated driving features. Always observe safe driving practices. Please refer to the operating manual for details on driving assist systems’ (print etc.) or ‘When driving, keep your hands on the wheel at all times. Always observe safe driving practices and obey all state and federal laws.’”

Everyone involved in the decision to pull that ad should get a raise. This is how a serious business handles serious business.

There was another issue, too: The Mercedes reps felt the comparison between DrivePilot and Autopilot was an apples-to-oranges correlation; they remained totally confident in DrivePilot, but wanted to see it assessed for what the engineers intended it to be—the world’s best ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance System, emphasis on “driver.” Here, another excerpt from an email from Moran, with whom I had a few conversations following my last piece (everything in the bulleted list below is a direct quote):

  • Mercedes-Benz has always stressed that its driver assistance systems are intended to support the driver by allowing for a safer, more comfortable driving experience, and that the driver is expected to remain in control of the vehicle and fully aware of their surroundings at all times.
  • Under no circumstances should a driver expect to be able to relinquish control of the vehicle, nor to ignore the responsibility to drive safety.
  • While the new E-Class has a host of technology that will serve as the building blocks for increasing levels of autonomy (and which will be a prominent component of our marketing), it is not an autonomous vehicle and we are not positioning it as such.
  • If a driver takes his or her hands off the wheel, audible and visual warnings are issued.

When a major corporation is transparent about its mistakes and asks for another chance because they believe in their product, I’m willing to pay them the respect of digging deeper into the disputed technology. DrivePilot, Autopilot, and the myriad other brand names given to the current crop of semi-autonomous driving (AD) systems aren’t some meaningless luxury option; AD is the most important safety advance since the seat belt, and the first wave in a storm that will transform cars as we know them. A lot of ink has been spilled about how AD is inevitable, but less about how it’s actually going to work, or should work.

To that end, Mercedes was willing to give me yet another E-class—this time for an entire week—and let me do an even deeper dive into the car’s capabilities.

Will I feel differently about DrivePilot in seven days? I doubt it, but I’m open to it. If Mercedes is willing to take the chance, I’m willing to put down another 500 to 1,000 miles and assess it anew, in the context of how the company says the system is supposed to be used, and make sure I didn’t miss anything the first time out.

DrivePilot review, Round 2, #comingsoon.

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 FacebookTwitter and Instagram.