Being the pioneer in any endeavor poses its own set of challenges. Amidst the myriad “firsts” on the intricate journey toward autonomous vehicles, Mercedes-Benz proudly claims a significant milestone. As of now, the esteemed German luxury sports automaker stands as the inaugural company to introduce a Level 3 self-driving car on American roads.
Commencing in 2023, Mercedes will unveil the all-electric EQS and subsequently the S-Class sedans, both equipped with the groundbreaking Drive Pilot system. These vehicles have undergone meticulous enhancements, incorporating an array of additional sensors and safety features, enabling them to navigate autonomously in specific scenarios. This level of autonomy transcends the hands-off driver assistance found in technologies like General Motors’ Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise. With Level 3 autonomy, the car assumes control of its operation, implying that the responsibility in the event of any incident lies with the car and its manufacturer, not the driver.
To gauge the efficacy of the Drive Pilot system, Mercedes-Benz arranged for my exploration in the city notorious for its traffic woes—Los Angeles. They provided accommodation for the night, granting me access to an EQS sedan for an extensive afternoon of testing. However, before delving into the system’s capabilities, I needed to familiarize myself with its limitations.
DRIVE PILOT LIMITATIONS
The Drive Pilot initiation involves a comprehensive video lasting over seven minutes, reminiscent of the safety briefings flight attendants insist you pay attention to before takeoff. This mandatory video serves as a guide to all the dos and don’ts, a prerequisite for vehicle owners who must view it at least once.
The most prominent constraint is tied to geography and legislation, as Drive Pilot is currently sanctioned only in California and Nevada. Consequently, Mercedes exclusively sells vehicles equipped with this feature in these states. Moreover, the system exclusively functions on highways meticulously mapped in high definition, excluding secondary roads from its operational scope.
Additional restrictions are more circumstantial, adding an element of frustration. The system operates solely at speeds up to 40 mph and exclusively in traffic conditions. Despite the freedom to divert attention from the road, California and Nevada laws prohibit holding a smartphone while driving, leaving users reliant on the in-dash MBUX experience.
Furthermore, taking a nap or turning to interact with rear-seat passengers for an extended period is strictly prohibited. A critical stipulation demands constant readiness to assume control within a 10-second timeframe. Failure to respond to the car’s escalating alerts—beginning with a dashboard warning, followed by chimes and flashing lights, and culminating in a swift tug at the seat belt—triggers the car to activate its hazard lights and autonomously bring itself to a safe stop.
THE DRIVE PILOT DRIVING EXPERIENCE
As I embarked on my quest for traffic, with the myriad caveats swirling in my mind like legal sugarplums, I encountered no difficulty in finding congestion. Within a few miles of setting out, I found myself navigating through four lanes of gridlock, prompting the activation of Drive Pilot.
The system signals its readiness through a small icon on the gauge cluster and a pair of white lights integrated into buttons on the steering wheel. Pressing either of these buttons, followed by an “OK” to acknowledge a final warning, activates the system, allowing you to release the steering wheel.
Subsequently, the experience assumed a rather uneventful nature, which is precisely how it should be. The car autonomously determines a safe speed, alleviating any concerns in that regard. It maintained a stable position in the center of the lane, exhibiting smooth and precise reactions to lane-splitting motorcyclists and assertive drivers cutting in ahead.
While Drive Pilot’s generous following distance might irk some drivers due to frequent cut-offs, the question arises: does it truly matter if you’re comfortably engrossed in watching YouTube on the center display?
However, my chief frustration stems from the system’s perceived limitations compared to Mercedes-Benz’s Level 2 Distronic system. Drive Pilot cannot autonomously change lanes to navigate around slowed or stationary traffic and doesn’t execute lane changes to guide you toward your exit. It remains stationary until you assume control and maneuver it into another lane. In contrast, Distronic seamlessly performs these tasks, albeit with the requirement of occasional touches on the steering wheel.
The most glaring limitation, however, is the capped speed of 40 mph. This restriction, in my opinion, diminishes the allure of Drive Pilot in its current state, placing it somewhat below the appeal of Level 2 hands-off systems like Super Cruise.
DRIVE PILOT AVAILABLE BY SUBSCRIPTION
Mercedes-Benz underscores a commitment to ongoing enhancements and updates for Drive Pilot, acknowledging the need for continuous refinement. This commitment is reflected in the subscription-based model associated with Drive Pilot, which not only covers software updates but also contributes to offsetting the expenses tied to additional hardware. Every EQS or S-Class featuring Drive Pilot boasts advanced components, including a laser-scanning lidar sensor, higher-precision GPS, and redundant systems such as power steering, anti-lock braking, and a secondary ECU.
Notably, the upfront purchase cost of these cars remains unchanged. However, the utilization of Drive Pilot necessitates a subscription fee of $2,500 for the first year. This equates to slightly over $200 per month, a contrast to the $25 monthly fee for Super Cruise or $75 for BlueCruise. The company has not disclosed whether this subscription cost will remain constant as the system evolves in capability.
It’s imperative to highlight that these vehicles will initially be exclusively available in California and Nevada, with limited availability, at least in the initial phase. Therefore, potential buyers are advised to contact their local dealers promptly if they wish to secure one.