The race to government-certified Level 3 autonomous driving has been won.
Mercedes-Benz is the first to be certified for Level 3 autonomous driving by the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (like our NHTSA). Its Drive Pilot software will be able to travel over 8,000 miles of German highway, in traffic, at speeds up to 37 mph, hands free. We know that's a lot of qualifiers, but this is a huge step to joining the real hands-free, semi-autonomous systems, from Cadillac, Ford and, okay fine, Tesla.
The system will be available in the company's flagship S-Class first, but will soon land on the electric Mercedes EQS. The LiDAR-based system "takes the strain off the driver," according to the release. But we were surprised to learn the system will allow for online shopping, sending emails and even watching movies while driving. However, in a footnote it says "Which secondary activities of the driver are legally permissible depends on the respective national road traffic regulations" so it's probably covered.
Germany has allowed the use of Level 3 systems on public roads since 2017, but the ways that a system can be certified for use wasn't codified until this year. And Mercedes jumped on it.
"For many years, we have been working to realize our vision of automated driving. With this LiDAR-based system, we have developed an innovative technology for our vehicles that offers customers a unique, luxurious driving experience and gives them what matters most: time. With the approval of the authorities, we have now achieved a breakthrough: We are the first manufacturer to put conditionally automated driving into series production in Germany," says Markus Schafer, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG, Chief Technology Officer responsible for Development and Purchasing.
The new system basically builds on the Driving Assistance Package that we get here. Our system will already stay between the lines, though it tells you to put your hands on the wheel after a few seconds. But it comes with additional sensors including most importantly the LiDAR (coming on our next E-Class), also a camera in the rear window, and microphones to detect emergency vehicles, and finally a moisture sensor in the wheel well.
Additionally, Drive Pilot takes data from a digital map that's updated continuously about road geometry, unusual traffic events, route profile, and traffic signs. As expected, all of these systems have redundancies to support the steering, braking and electronics so if something happens, you'll still be able to drive.
The system placing your S-Class on that map is more powerful than GPS, according to Mercedes, and the satellite data is matched with the HD map. Each vehicle stores that map and compares it. If something needs to be updated, it happens automatically.
You can bet Mercedes is currently working on this system for the US. Like Cadillac, which has now mapped 200,000 roads here and in Canada, we're guessing Mercedes will start with the big highways that crisscross the country. Eventually it can move on to the rest. And after spending a few hours under Super Cruise recently (which was put on pause for the chip shortage, but now is back), we can't see any reason Mercedes couldn't do the same or better.