Back in 1998, long before Tesla Motors was founded, Mercedes-Benz was the first automaker in the world to introduce radar-assisted autonomous cruise control by offering it as an option on its S-Class and CL-Class sedans.
Capable of matching the speed of the car in front and keeping a safe braking distance behind it, Mercedes-Benz’s Distrionic system was the first semi-autonomous driving feature to control both a vehicle’s accelerator and brake system to keep the car and its occupants safe. Some 17 years later, and adaptive cruise control has become standard on all but the most utilitarian of cars on sale today.
Now, says parent company Daimler, the German automaker is ready to lead the way again by becoming one of the first automakers to introduce autonomous drive features on its all-new 2016 E-Class sedan, which will go on sale in March next year.
Like the Audi’s Piloted Drive system and Tesla’s promised auto-pilot system, the autonomous drive feature in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz E-Class isn’t designed to completely take over the driving duties. Instead, it’s designed to help make the driving experience smoother and safer.
Currently, Mercedes-Benz offers a €2,250 autonomous driver assistance package on its current-generation S-Class, which Daimler says a staggering 90 percent of all S-Class buyers in Germany opt for. Less sophisticated than the upcoming system to be used in the E-Class, the S-Class system takes over in stop-and-go traffic at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour (37mph), following the car in front and preventing the driver from switching lanes if there’s something in the vehicle’s blind spot.
As Bloomberg reports, Mercedes-Benz’s new system for the E-Class uses a series of sensors embedded in the body of the car as well as front-facing cameras to help the vehicle see the world around itself. Capable of adjusting its speed automatically according to road conditions and posted speed limits, the autonomous E-Class can operate in autonomous driving mode at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour (80 mph) before a driver is required to take over, and can autonomously follow the road without driver input.
In addition, its sensor system can detect pedestrians and make an emergency stop at speeds below 65 kph (40mph), as well as help the driver avoid any obstacles on the road.
What’s important to note here however, is that the system isn’t one where the driver can remove their hands from the wheel completely. Instead, drivers will be required to remain alert. While the system will let drivers take their hands off the wheel for a few seconds, removing one’s hands for any longer period will first cause the E-Class to display a warning light, then sound an audible warning to alert the driver. If both these warnings are ignored, the car will turn off the autonomous driving system completely, stopping the car until the driver regains control.
Having spent some time in Mercedes-Benz’s pre-production autonomous E-Class ahead of its launch next year, Bloomberg notes that that the car was happy to navigate “around generous bends in the road and automatically adjusted the speed according to street signs.”
While it was happy to even manage dark tunnels without any incident however, Bloomberg reports that tree shadows on the summer road and temporary signs at construction sites sometimes caused the car confusion.
Were it a vehicle intended for full autonomy, we’d express concern over this fact. But as with other semi-autonomous driver-assistance technologies being developed today, the onus remains on the driver to ensure everything is operating as it should — and that they remain liable for any incidents which occur while these advanced driver assistance packages are being used.
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