At the world introduction of the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 4Matic sedan in Portugal last week, I had the opportunity to experience Mercedes’ new semi-autonomous driving system called Drive Pilot. Much like Tesla’s AutoPilot, Drive Pilot can actively steer, brake, accelerate and stop the car in many common driving situations without any help from the driver. It can also change lanes autonomously after the driver signals and initiates the steering direction.
I drove (or perhaps I should say, the car drove) a variety of roads around Lisbon – from city streets to freeways. Drive Pilot, part of the optional Intelligent Drive active-safety and driver-assistance system, uses a variety of radar sensors, cameras and ultrasound sensors to monitor its surroundings and ‘drive’ the car safely without running into anything else.
For example, by monitoring the relative positions of other vehicles and the lane markings, the 2017 E-Class sedan is capable of maintaining a safe following distance at speeds up to 210 km/h. Even without lane markings, at speeds up to 130 km/h, Drive Pilot can monitor surrounding vehicles and parallel structures to keep the car in its lane. If the car comes to a stop in heavy traffic, it can automatically resume moving within 30 seconds of the stop. In general, I found that Drive Pilot works very well on well-marked freeways and in heavy stop-and-go traffic, but isn’t designed for negotiating tight city streets. At speed, it will brake when approaching slower cars, but it takes faith to keep your foot off the brake pedal and let the car do the braking.
In Europe, the Drive Pilot system can recognize Europe’s distinctive red and white round speed limit signs, and automatically adjust the speed of the car appropriately as speed limits change. However, Drive Pilot won’t be able to recognize Canada’s rectangular speed limit signs, which means that Canadians will have to manually adjust the cruise control’s maximum speed before Drive Pilot can function in that speed range.
And as far as I could determine, Drive Pilot doesn’t read stop signs or traffic lights so you’ll have to do your own braking there.
It’s nice to know though, that if the driver falls asleep or becomes unconscious, the car will automatically slow down, gently come to a stop, and turn on the 4-way flashers.
On multi-lane freeways and secondary roads, Drive Pilot automatically steers the car so that it stays in its lane, with the proviso that the driver keep their hands ready on the steering wheel in case it deactivates. A warning symbol in the instrument cluster lights up if the driver removes their hands from the steering wheel. The automatic steering works on moderate bends when the road ahead is continuous, rather than in sharp corners or intersections, so its use is limited.
Drive Pilot also includes autonomous lane-changing, but only after the driver has signalled for two seconds and initiated some steering input. The car can sense if there’s another car in the blind spot and won’t change lanes if there is. Once it has changed lanes, the car automatically straightens itself out in the new lane. For the driver, there’s less work to do and it reduces the chances of a collision.
To avoid potential collisions, Drive Pilot works in conjunction with the 2017 E-Class sedan’s extensive list of standard and optional active safety features. Active Brake Assist with Cross-Traffic function now monitors traffic ahead at speeds between seven and 250 km/h, and can detect and avoid cross-traffic, bicyclists and pedestrians up to 70 km/h. Mercedes says it can now completely avoid collisions with stationary vehicles at speeds up to 100 km/h and with pedestrians at speeds up 65 km/h.
Evasive Steering Assist adds to the pedestrian detection function of Active Brake Assist by adding steering torque to the driver’s movement of the steering wheel when trying to avoid pedestrians.
Active Blind Spot Assist automatically steers the car away from a potential collision at speeds above 30 km/h if the driver attempts to change lanes when another car or bicyclist is travelling in its blind spot. In addition, it now warns of lateral collisions at speeds below 30 km/h.
Active Lane-Keeping Assist can counter unintentional lane crossing at speed between 60 and 200 km/h by braking the wheels on one side of the car and forcing the car back into its lane. It also reacts to overtaking cars, parallel and oncoming traffic, and parked vehicles.
In a strong side wind, new Crosswind Assist briefly brakes the wheels on one side of the vehicle to counter the wind gusts and keep the E-Class in its lane.
When the car is stationary, Pre-Safe Plus uses radar sensors in the rear bumper to monitor cars behind - if a rear-end collision is imminent, it locks the brakes, tensions the seatbelts, and maintains brake pressure for two seconds after a crash.
New Pre-Safe Impulse Side senses an impending side impact, and pushes the driver or passenger towards the centre of the vehicle to reduce potential injuries.
If a collision does happen, new Pre-Safe Sound preconditions the ears to reduce the harmful effects of collision noises. Mercedes describes it as a brief rushing sound to prepare the inner ear for high sound pressures.
To top it off, new Parking Pilot automatically parks your Mercedes backwards or forwards in parallel or perpendicular parking spots without touching the steering wheel. And if you have a narrow garage, you can use a cell phone app to remotely park your car while standing outside the car.
Overall, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the self-driving capabilities of the new E-Class’ Drive Pilot system. The technology has come a long way in just a few years. But while I can see the appeal of a vehicle that drives itself to your office while you sit in the back seat preparing your morning’s Powerpoint presentation, I’m not sure about the value of a vehicle that can only drive itself in certain situations as long as you constantly supervise it just in case you have to take over the driving duties.
This form of ‘supervised’ driving can be nerve-wracking: there were times when I was not sure who was driving the car as it’s possible to inadvertently touch the brake or gas pedal and deactivate the Drive Pilot. At times I wondered, “Is the car going to turn at the next corner?” “Is it going to brake for that car in front?”
As well, with someone else driving (ie. Drive Pilot), there is a tendency to lose driver focus simply because you’re no longer in control and you’re not engaged in any of the normal driving tasks except watching the road ahead. Instead of being a driver, you are now a passenger supervising the driving process. There is the potential to be distracted or get bored.
On the bright side, Drive Pilot relieves the driver of many of the more stressful aspects of driving such as changing lanes on a busy freeway, having to constantly brake and speed up on a congested freeway, maintaining directional stability on a windy highway, parking the car in a tight parking spot, and avoiding potentially serious collisions.
There’s no doubt that Drive Pilot is an important step towards a fully autonomous automobile, but it may be difficult for consumers to warm up to the practical realities of a driving partner who is only half committed.
Soon to be available in the new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 4Matic sedans, Drive Pilot is part of the optional Intelligent Drive Package. Vehicle and option prices are yet to be announced, but last year’s Intelligent Drive Package was priced at $2,700. The 2017 E300 4Matic sedan is scheduled to arrive in Canada in June while the E400 4Matic sedan will go on sale in October. Other 2017 E-Class sedan models are to be announced at a later date.
2017 E-Class 4Matic sedan - List of Safety Features
Standard safety features in the 2017 E-Class 4Matic sedans include Passive Blind Spot Assist, Attention Assist, Collision Prevention Assist, Adaptive Brake with Hold function, Dynamic Cornering Assist, ABS, ESC, Pre-safe, and Neck-pro along with Evasive Steering Assist, Crosswind Assist and Pre-Safe Sound.
The optional Intelligent Drive Package with Drive Pilot includes Distance Pilot Distronic, Active Lane-Change Assistant, and Active Emergency Stop Assist. It also includes upgraded versions of Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Brake Assist with Cross-Traffic Assist, and Active Lane-Keeping Assistant along with Pre-Safe Brake, Pre-Safe Plus and new Pre-Safe Impulse Side and Pre-Safe Sound.