(Bloomberg) -- Mercedes-Benz is leaning hard into becoming the preeminent provider of autonomous driving in the United States.
The company has confirmed that its Level 3 hands-free driving service, called Drive Pilot, will be offered as a $2,500 annual subscription for 2024 EQS sedan and 2024 S-Class models through dealers in Nevada and California. Those states approved it in January and June, respectively.
Executives crowed about the news during a Drive Pilot test on Sept. 19, calling it a “moon landing” for the Stuttgart, Germany-based brand.
“Somebody has to be first on the moon and explore this area,” says Markus Schaefer, chief technology officer of Mercedes-Benz Group. Mercedes is the world’s first automaker to win approval for SAE Level 3 autonomous driving in the US. SAE is an engineering and technical firm that rates autonomous driving for motor vehicle operation on roadways. (Level 0 offers no driving automation, while Level 5 has full driving automation; Level 3 requires neither hands on the steering wheel nor eyes on the road while the car is in motion.)
“It’s not a simple thing to move from a Level 2 to a Level 3 system,” Schaefer says. “You can prove it [that it’s not simple] by the fact that nobody else did it.”
The certification has so far beaten all others in the race to sell autonomous driving in the US. (Mercedes’s Drive Pilot became legal in Germany in May 2022.) The news will hit Tesla fans particularly hard. Elon Musk has claimed for years that his company would soon offer fully autonomous driving, but Tesla’s so-called “Full-Self Driving” feature—a $12,000 Level 2 driving option—requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their eyes on the road.
Level 3, by contrast, allows the person in the driver’s seat to sit back and watch videos, send and return emails, text, read a book, and otherwise disengage from the act of driving on highways at speeds up to 40 mph.
“You can’t take a video conference legally in any other car,” Schaefer says. “Nobody has done that before—not only Tesla but also players from China.” A spokesperson at Tesla did not respond to a request for comment about its own Level 3 plans.
A recent one-hour test of the Drive Pilot system on a notoriously snarled portion of Interstate 10 in LA reveals that it can foster relaxation and productivity while a car crawls through the city’s worst traffic. It works by using a complex network of Lidar, long-range radars, and sensitive cameras and sensors to recognize and adjust to road conditions while the person behind the steering wheel relaxes. Many of the devices are redundant in order to maintain seamless navigation in the event that one system becomes impaired.
Apart from a small dome on the back roof of the car and some small sensors along the front and rear, the system is imperceptible to the untrained eye.
Using Drive Pilot takes two steps. First, the car must determine when the correct operating conditions are met: The vehicle must be on a highway with a solid center divider and at least two lanes of traffic on either side, and the surface must be dry during daylight. The radars and cameras can’t read the road in rain, snow, ice or darkness.
Once proper conditions are established, which the car can sense on its own, the technology illuminates two buttons on the outer edge of the steering wheel and a light band on the center of the steering wheel, signaling that Drive Pilot mode is ready. The driver then presses either one or both of the buttons, removes the foot from the accelerator, and lets the car take control. The system requires fewer steps than it takes to activate the Level 2 system, which is basically glorified cruise control.
Operating in an EQS sedan heading west on Interstate 10 toward Santa Monica, Drive Pilot offers instant relief from some of the nation’s worst traffic. With my hands and eyes free to roam, I answer work emails and flip through YouTube videos on the car’s center-console screen. The car slows smoothly when a white delivery van coming down a highway entry ramp barges in front; it deftly navigates when a gray Toyota Prius cuts ahead as traffic narrows into a bottleneck. I actually feel calm in the middle of a daily traffic jam that normally gives me palpable anxiety.
Still, the system is restrictive. The 40 mph limit and road restrictions mean it will work only in a certain type of traffic—one familiar to Los Angeles drivers but potentially less useful to those elsewhere. It won’t change lanes by itself, and it won’t operate on surface streets, which are more complex and volatile than highways. (That will come in future years, according to Mercedes engineers.) When I recline my seat a bit—I’m getting comfortable—a warning appears on the driving display to alert me that settling into a nap isn’t permitted. Fair enough. When I unclip my seatbelt, a further warning tells me to restore it. And when I muse about driving it to Mexico, the Mercedes engineer riding shotgun says Level 3 would deactivate once I cross beyond the California state border. (The same applies to Nevada.)
I really wish the car would go faster than 40 mph in Level 3 mode; once I’m past the worst gridlock and want to move faster, it turns off. Drive Pilot at speeds up to 80 mph is the next goal, say the engineers.
Still, the ease of how it all works belies the high level of technology at play. Using Drive Pilot in late-morning rush hour traffic proves a soothing relief from my normal commuting nightmare. (On the worst days, it requires 60 to 70 minutes to travel 12 miles.) My blood pressure never surges. I don’t even curse Prius drivers, as I typically do, for their universally terrible driving; I’m too busy getting a jump on matters at work.
Drive Pilot is still a world away from fully autonomous—Level 5—driving. But it’s a big step toward that goal. With an affordable price tag and nearly immediate availability, Drive Pilot will bring Mercedes a major advantage in this brave, new world.
(Corrects cost of Tesla’s self-driving feature in the sixth paragraph.)
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