Mercedes speeds toward autonomy

Elisabeth Behrmann
Bloomberg News

Drivers of Mercedes-Benz’s new E-Class sedan will have to get used to a startling feeling: the steering wheel moving in their hands as it pilots motorways and country lanes by itself.

What’s only been shown in test situations will be available as of about March next year, when Daimler AG’s revamped model goes on sale. The technology packing the vehicle shows how quickly automated driving systems have advanced since 1998, when the Mercedes S-Class first featured cruise control that could adjust its speed to follow a car in front.

“Innovations in this area are coming thick and fast,” Thomas Weber, Daimler’s head of development, said in his office in Sindelfingen, Germany. “While we don’t want to feed wrong expectations such as sleeping in the car, autonomous driving is set to become a reality much more quickly than the public thinks.”

Self-driving systems are among many areas in which Daimler’s Mercedes is working to gain an edge on Volkswagen AG’s Audi and Munich-based BMW AG.

Currently No. 3 in luxury-car sales, Daimler is fighting to take the lead in the segment by 2020. It’s also testing the limits of what’s allowed under current regulations, which in most places require the driver to be in a position to control the vehicle .

The E-Class, which competes with the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Lexus GS, is Mercedes’ bread-and-butter luxury sedan. Offering options more advanced than those in the flagship S-Class shows how much Daimler is raising the stakes to reclaim the top spot in high-end cars. Audi has already sent an unmanned RS7 around a track at racing speeds.

On a drive last week on freeways and country roads in southern Germany near where the E-Class is built, the car’s sensors and cameras smoothly kept it in the middle of the lane. It navigated around generous bends in the road and automatically adjusted the speed according to street signs.

While tree shadows and temporary signs at big construction sites sometimes confused the system, it managed dark tunnels and operated to a top speed of 80 miles per hour. Though nerve-racking at first, the effect was eventually relaxing and comforting.

Sharper turns, while technically possible, aren’t part of its repertoire yet, said Weber.

If the car detects that the driver doesn’t have her hands on the steering wheel, the steering aid system first switches on a warning light, then beeps, then turns itself off, forcing the driver to retake the wheel. The experience is interactive enough to prevent the driver from zoning out.

Technology like this is moving faster than the laws of the road can keep up, said Wolfgang Bernhart, an automotive expert at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. The legal framework will eventually have to allow customers to let go of the wheel to check emails or read the newspaper, he said.

“If that’s not the case, these features will be a hard sell,” Bernhart said.

The top-of-the-line S-Class already on the market isn’t quite as smart as Daimler says the new E-Class will be. Still, it can take over in stop-and-go traffic as fast as 37 mph and prevent a lane change when another vehicle is in its blind spot. The options are popular: More than 90 percent of S-Class buyers in Germany add the $2,500 package, Daimler said.

In addition to making highway driving simpler, the new E- Class’ automated systems are designed to help prevent crashes. In a simulation of a sudden highway traffic jam at Daimler’s test site, the car screeched to a halt inches away from a dummy after hurtling toward it at 55 mph.

Its radar, cameras and sensors can also spot pedestrians and make an emergency stop at speeds as fast as 40 mph. It won’t only slam on the brakes, though; when a driver swerves in an extreme situation, the system will guide around the obstacle, then help pull the wheel straight again.

Several automotive generations into the future, the steering wheel might become optional. Daimler’s F015 luxury concept car, shown in January, had swivel seats so driver and passengers could face each other for a chat.

How quickly this vision becomes reality depends on how quickly automakers, legislators and insurers can find legal answers to the question of who’s responsible in a crash and solve how to tell a car what to hit in an unavoidable collision.