Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot L3 Is Super Smooth (but Limited) Hands-Free Driving
Drive Pilot is like hiring a trained chauffeur that only works under very specific conditions. We tested the system ahead of its U.S. debut.
Driving isn't always fun. We car enthusiasts love to pretend that every mile of every drive ought to be the Rallye Monte-Carlo. But this is not how it works. Driving sucks sometimes. This is why having an out from the filth that is mind-numbing freeways and bumper-to-bumper traffic could be a sanity-saver. This is the promise of Drive Pilot: Mercedes-Benz's Level 3 autonomous-driving assist.
The technology, which is the first of its kind to be publicly available, is already offered on the S-Class and EQS sedans for road-legal use in Germany, but won’t make its United States debut until 2023. Still, I got a chance to try it out at the automaker’s proving grounds recently in order to see what Level 3 autonomy is like.
How It Works
Per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Level 3 automation is when the vehicle "handles all aspects of the driving task while the driver remains available to take over driving if requested." This doesn't mean the driver can nap or hang out in the back seat while the car negotiates various traffic scenarios. It simply means the driver can take their hands off the wheel and perform other tasks but is always ready to regain control.
For this specific application, Drive Pilot must be able to see your face in order to remain engaged. You can move your head (and eyes) sideways to either converse or watch a movie on the Hyperscreen—yes, you can legally do that in Germany—but the face must remain unobstructed to the driver-facing camera. Level 2 systems such as GM's Super Cruise or Ford's Blue Cruise, on the other hand, require drivers to keep an eye on the road at all times.
Another big difference between Drive Pilot and the Ford and GM systems is the tech’s ability to operate in a wider range of scenarios with considerably less human intervention. Level 2 remains a sort of adaptive cruise control on steroids, while Level 3 software and hardware can process much more data and therefore be more autonomous on the road.
The way the EQS and S-Class sedans achieve Level 3 automation is through Mercedes’ own software, as well as hardware sourced from various suppliers. Specifically, LiDAR, 13 ultrasonic sensors, six cameras, five radars, high-proximity GPS, and a microphone.
Drive Pilot in Practice
Despite German authorities deeming the system safe in Dec. 2021 and drivers employing it across 8,197 miles of public highway, Mercedes opted to keep me on a closed course for my test. I was a bit wary of this at first. I wondered why Mercedes had flown me all the way to Germany only to stick me on a test track rather than a Drive Pilot-approved public road. After completing my test, however, I understood that it would've been impossible to recreate so many driving scenarios out in the real world.
The Immendingen proving grounds, where I also tested the Vision EQXX, sprawls 1,285 acres and features over 30 different test circuits. The banked oval is likely the coolest and fastest, but my plans for the day wouldn't involve driving over 40 mph, let alone exploring its top lane.
I pulled out onto the oval in a Drive Pilot-equipped Mercedes EQS. With Distronic (Mercedes' smart cruise control that’s already available in the States) activated, the EV navigated down the tarmac at about 60 km/h (37 mph). The skies were clear, the sun was shining, and I was at the wheel of a cool car. It was a good day. But suddenly, a traffic jam ahead triggered some alerts and forced my car to a halt. A dozen or so EQBs, EQEs, EQSs, and Mercedes semi-trucks blocked the track. It took me a few seconds to realize it, but all of them were Mercedes employees playing actors for the day. This was the beginning of my first Level 3 experience.
With precision to rival the best NSYNC choreography, all of the actor vehicles began creeping forward. Two silver buttons located above the steering spokes (essentially at 10 and 2 o'clock) lit up with a turquoise glow. This was my cue to push them and activate Drive Pilot. I took my hands off the wheel, my foot off the pedals, and let the tech do its thing.
The EQS accelerated as the driver's portion of the 56-inch Hyperscreen dash and oversized head-up display came alive with graphics. These displays showed me exactly what the car was seeing in real-time. The head-up display was especially nice. It made me feel safer when I could check on the car's doings without taking my eyes off the road.
Then, it happened again, another sudden move by those pesky actors pretending to be real drivers: An EQE in front of me decided to pull over onto the right-hand shoulder—but not entirely. Some of the car was still in my lane. Drive Pilot recognized this situation and veered slightly to the left, safely passing the "stranded" car. No drama. We kept going.
This was repeated further ahead but this time there was an SUV driving in the lane to my left, meaning my car couldn't just veer to the side and avoid the stranded car on the right. As a result, it slowed down until the SUV passed and then maneuvered around the stopped car.
The longer I drove, the more difficult the obstacles got. One time, a Mercedes semi-truck merged onto the track and cut off several of the actor cars, making them swerve erratically in front of me. However, because this was happening way ahead and most cars kept up their speed, my car chose to do nothing. I knew it had recognized this situation because I could see it register on my screens, but otherwise, the EQS kept its trajectory.
So Much Room for Activities!
After experiencing these various scenarios to understand the tech's capability, it was time to sit back, relax, and understand what the driver of a Level 3-equipped vehicle could do with their time. Tetris, anyone?
The Mercedes engineer riding shotgun pulled up Tetris on the Hyperscreen and asked if I wanted to play. Okay? I did for a bit, but I had a different idea. I asked him to pull up a web browser, and he said, "Sure!" Next thing I knew, I was actually reading TheDrive.com while driving—err, riding on a banked oval. I quickly reached for my camera to try and snap a photo of this, but Drive Pilot immediately disengaged as soon as I brought the camera up to my face. For safety reasons, and as I explained above, the driver’s face must remain visible to the driver-facing camera at all times.
After retaking the photo from a different angle, I resumed browsing the site and playing games. Believe it or not, this is all legal in Germany now. Folks can watch movies, play games, or catch up on emails while their fancy Benz drives them around.
Reacting to Emergency Vehicles
Just as I was enjoying my plush, hands-free cruise, Drive Pilot began beeping while some red lights flashed throughout the cockpit. It was asking me to regain control of the vehicle because it had sensed something—but what? A few seconds later, an SUV with police lights and a siren appeared in my rearview mirror. The microphone built into the roof had picked up the emergency siren way before I did and had acted accordingly. Once the cop car sped into the distance, my buttons lit up green and I was good to resume Drive Pilot once more.
Further ahead, there was a bottleneck situation caused by a fake road closure. Orange cones and an emergency truck blocked three of the four lanes, so vehicles had to form a single file to get through. Drive Pilot safely slowed down and merged me into the queue of vehicles, navigating me up until I'd reached the emergency truck. It was then that the system asked me to take over. Also, the cop car was there! It had passed me to respond to a fake emergency. Mercedes really thought of everything.
There are two elephants in the room: Drive Pilot is currently limited to 60 km/h (37 mph) and is only available in Germany. Mercedes claims the speed restriction is mostly due to government regulation, as it's currently designed for high-traffic settings. However, the system possesses the technical capabilities to function at higher speeds.
As far as its availability, Mercedes is already in the process of certifying Drive Pilot in the States and hopes to get approval in early 2023. California and Nevada will likely spearhead the rollout, with others following as state governments certify the system. While the cars will be free to drive anywhere, Level 3 autonomy will only be available in the areas where it is legal.
Drive Pilot will be offered the S-Class and EQS, though U.S. pricing is not yet available. In Germany, the cost to equip either new sedan ranges between the equivalent of $5,000 and $7,000. When I asked if Drive Pilot will be offered as a subscription, the answer was "not at the moment."
Drive Pilot's ability to negotiate a variety of real-world scenarios was truly impressive, but what stood out was how quickly and confidently it did it. Think of a run-of-the-mill adaptive cruise system with lane-keeping capabilities and toss that idea out the window. Those systems are, more often than not, jerky, undecisive, and painfully slow in reacting to outside elements. Drive Pilot essentially mimics a human driver, with its smooth and decisive steering inputs and confident acceleration and braking events. And not just any human driver, either, but a Mercedes-trained S-Class chauffeur.
It’s still unclear how capable the system will be in the U.S. upon arrival. Much of the technology will surely be restricted by government regulations, just like it is in Germany at the moment. Its speed limits, geographical boundaries, and overall availability are still far from decided, so it’s hard to speculate just how useful it will be once it arrives. Despite it happening in a controlled environment, my Drive Pilot experience was very exciting and, needless to say, eye-opening. Given how much development will be done over the next couple of years, it’s going to be very interesting to see what the rest of the decade will bring.
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