How do you call it when you are driving a car which you are not actually driving? This was the key dilemma we had when we were first driven / drove around Silicon Valley in the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive Concept. Essentially this is an autonomous version of the Mercedes-Benz S500 limousine that hit the showrooms last year.
It is our second autonomous driving experience in a few weeks time, following the race track experience we had in the Audi RS7 Piloted Driving Concept. Where Audi showed us what it is like to lap a race track at incredible speed without a driver, Mercedes-Benz takes us onto the busy streets of the Bay Area in California.
Since September 2014 the government in California granted permission to various tech firms and car manufacturers to conduct autonomous vehicle tests on the streets. The State of California has a leadership role in developing new legislation for autonomous cars and provides the ideal test bed for new autonomous cars. In comparison to European countries it also offers some interesting challenges for autonomous vehicles, like the allowed right turn at a red traffic light and four-way stop intersections.
The Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive Concept is a regular Mercedes-Benz S-Class with additional radars and cameras mounted to the front- and back. Additional computing power with a sophisticated map of the area provide the rest necessary to do a few mile lap around the Mercedes-Benz Research & Development Center in Sunnyvale. The system works in a similar fashion as an adaptive cruise control system already widely available on the market does. At the press of a button it will take over up to 100% of the tasks of the driver. To switch back to manual driving you can press the brakes or press the button again.
We are very used to driving with adaptive cruise control and lane assist in our current Audi Q5 and feel safe and comfortable with similar systems from Mercedes-Benz as well. If you are unfamiliar with these two systems, go to your local Audi, Mercedes-Benz or VW dealer and ask for a test ride with a car that has both, you will be amazed! Being familiar with the basics of a car accelerating / decelerating and even steering for us, we can move on to the more advanced features built into the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive. One of the main challenges for the engineers of autonomous vehicles beyond the hardware part is predicting traffic situations and setting the right protocol on how the autonomous vehicle should handle these.
As you can imagine there are millions and millions of different scenarios that can happen during any given drive and pre-programming each one would be a monstrous job. In reality the brain of the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive reliefs on a combination of pre-programmed scenarios and rules and certain self-learning elements – even warnings submitted from other autonomous vehicles are possible.
We pull out of the parking lot and engage the system, from the driver is only here as a safety precaution and if all goes well the autonomous Mercedes-Benz S-Class should complete the lap around the city and highway without any human intervention. The first obstacles presents itself within a few hundred meters from our starting point; a four-lane intersection with traffic lights. At this stage the S500 Intelligent Drive gives a clear voice command: Traffic Light is Red and stops at the designated spot. Once the light shows green it turns left along the pre-defined route towards the highway. We pass a few more traffic lights and in each case it gives an assuring “Traffic Light is Green” or “Traffic Light is Red” audio signal.
Now we are reaching a critical point in our journey; the onramp to the Highway with a very short merging lane. The light goes green and the S500 accelerates up the onramp and as we reach the crest of the onramp we can see the traffic passing us on the highway. Briefly the car withheld the throttle before accelerating hard, blinking to the left and merging exactly in a gap between two vehicles on the highway. The tricky part here is for the car to look back and analyze the traffic coming from behind. It passed the test nicely and I dare to say I felt safer than with some friends and taxi drivers who did similar maneuvers in my past.
The intelligent drive S500 knows we have to exit again in a few miles so it stays on the right lane and smoothly leaves the highway again. The rest of the journey feels like a walk in the park. The only place where driver intervention, or confirmation as you wish, was necessary was at one of these typical California only situation with an intersection where cars are allowed to turn right on a red light. Slowly the car inched forwards towards the corner, waiting patiently for passing traffic to clear. As soon as the right turn was safe, it prompted for the driver to confirm it wanted to turn. Once confirmed the car moved around the corner and continued as usual.
Back at the MBRDNA Headquarters in Sunnyvale the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive had one more trick up its sleeve, it can actually park itself. The Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive combines a lot of existing systems available in ordinary cars today like adaptive cruise control, lane assist, automatic collision prevention, parking assistance, etc and takes it to the next level with a car that connects all systems and adds a level of AI we haven’t seen on any car up to today.
Generally the public opinion is very biased when it comes to autonomous cars. Safety and legal concerns are a main issue. But a lot of people also fear the idea of not being able to drive themselves any more. As much as we like driving ourselves, we don’t have to worry. There will not suddenly be a choice between autonomous cars and cars you can drive yourself at the showroom. Instead step by step ordinary cars will be equipped with systems that give you a great deal of choice over the tasks you like to do while driving and which you don’t. Overall it aids safety, many systems function just like an extra pair of eyes, and comfort, as tasks you don’t like can be left to the car.
Already we rely for a great deal on automated systems like adaptive cruise control and traffic jam assistant. Even in a sportscar a traffic jam remains a traffic jam and if I have a chance I prefer not to drive myself but let the car do it for me in all safety and comfort. The car we drove is clearly a prototype and not ready to hit the market from today to tomorrow, but the introduction of a fully autonomous car towards the end of this decade is feasible.
Mercedes-Benz even takes it one step further and is already working on the car interior of the future. A car interior that focusses on the opportunities once the driver doesn’t need to sit behind the wheel all the time anymore. At the CES in Las Vegas in January 2015 Mercedes-Benz will reveal a new concept car that embodies their vision for the (autonomous) car interior of the future and you can see some exclusive renders and impressions in the photo gallery above.
So what happens in the meantime? First expect highway driving and low speed tasks like parking to be automated by new systems. Over the next years also other safety systems like traffic light recognition will find their way on new cars. Each step coming closer to cars that can fully take away the driving tasks and responsibility from the driver. As the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive has shown us, the autonomous car is gaining momentum quickly and is clearly on a path to perfection!