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Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot Takes Self-Driving To The Next Level

The German automakers have been pioneers in the much-debated field of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). And the recent Drive Pilot is Mercedes-Benz’s latest, most advanced development of driving assistance systems that literally takes semi-autonomous vehicles to the next level. It’s a Level 3 ADAS that can handle all the driving in certain conditions and allows you to take your eyes off the road to read a book or watch Youtube videos or send text messages on your phone, without having to monitor the system all the time. 

That said, it’s a Level 3, which means it’s not fully autonomous yet that it would allow you to take a nap, or can drive itself to a designated destination all without a driver in the car. Read on to learn about the background of this much talked-about technology, how it works, what it can and cannot do, how Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot differs from similar systems currently available, its application in popular Mercedes models and what its future looks like.

Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot

Drive Pilot is expected to be available starting from the second half of 2021, when the automaker will have attained regulatory approval from the German government. This technology will be offered in the latest 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan, which will be sold in Germany only at first. This technology is part of the standard Driver Assistance Package offered across Mercedes’ global markets.

While most of the vehicles with some form of automated self-driving technology on the roads stop at Level 2 ADAS, the Drive Pilot steps up the game, being a Level 3 ADAS, that is conditional automation. The “conditional” part means that under certain driving conditions, the driver will have the option of letting the system take over and take care of all the driving. The Drive Pilot is capable of continuously monitoring the surrounding environment to carry out the driving task all by itself, but with the driver being awake and ready to manually take over once it detects any circumstantial changes that would require human override.

Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot
Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot allows you to take your eyes off the road. Source: Penn-State-News

How It Works

Drive Pilot uses a host of technologies and devices to continually sense the current weather and road conditions, including a camera system, a road moisture sensor, ultrasonic sensors, radar, lidar, and microphones. It then gauges the driving situation to automatically adjust vehicle speed, pass slower vehicles, change lanes, sense lanes that come to an end and detect merging traffic to ensure smooth and safe driving, without the driver having to keep an eye on the road to monitor the situation all the time. 

Comparison with Similar Systems

Michael Hafner, the director of driver assistance systems and active safety for Mercedes-Benz, emphasizes that Drive Pilot is very different from the recent Tesla’s Autopilot or the Super Cruise system from General Motors.

Currently, as with all other self-driving technologies available in the United States, both Super Cruise and Autopilot stop short and only qualify as Level 2 ADAS, which are partially automated systems. These partial self-driving systems require the driver to actively keep an eye on the vehicle’s surroundings and road conditions, and monitor the system to make sure it is working properly. Level 2 systems can make a few jobs less stressful for drivers, including braking and accelerating, lane-centering, and lane changes, given that the drivers don’t take their eyes off the road. 

In the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan, Drive Pilot can automatically handle all these tasks while the driver is not paying attention; you just have to stay awake to take over should the system notify you. One major limitation of the Drive Pilot is under the current legal autonomous driving speed in Germany, it’s only allowed to drive at a maximum speed of 37 mph or 60 km/h). 

However, procedures for legal approval are in place, and when that speed cap is raised, all vehicles with the Drive Pilot will get an over-the-air software update, so that the system can operate at higher speeds.

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Testings

Drive Pilot has gone through rigorous testing by Mercedes’s in-house engineers to finetune the system to allow for maximum safety. Its engineers are required to pass an eligibility exam to become test drivers, and another exam for testing automated driving systems. Before handing the technology to the public, the manufacturer wants their engineers to perfect and validate the system so as to minimize unpredictability, with regards to processors, software and the ability of machines to learn over time. 

At the carmaker’s test track in Germany, Mercedes representative told the press “We do not want blind trust. We want informed trust in the car. The customer needs to know exactly what the car can and cannot do. The worst thing would be if the car gets into a complex situation and there is ambiguity over whether the car is in control or not”.

Initially, Mercedes will only allow use of Drive Pilot on 90% of Germany’s limited-access highways, which are the current ideal conditions for the system to operate safely. This limited operation in the early birth of the technology can minimize risk while maximizing real-world learning opportunities, before the automaker can expand its use-case scenarios and further fine tune its functionality. 

In the future, legislative approval by overseas governments as well as more advanced regional infrastructure are required before Drive Pilot can be offered to markets elsewhere. The first markets where the technology will be available are the rest of Europe, the United States and China.

In addition, Mercedes emphasizes the importance of customer training in safely using Drive Pilot. To ensure safe handling by the public, it plans to provide in-person training to each buyer either at the dealership or at home, in addition to detailed written instructions and video contents to illustrate how to engage with the technology.

What It Can and Cannot Do

As above, Drive Pilot is a conditionally automated system, which means that certain conditions need to be met before it can be activated and operate safely without the driver’s interference. It works in a pre-defined geo-fenced area with adequate infrastructure that can safely facilitate self-driving vehicles, on pre-approved roads based on navigation data, and on a physically divided highway or one with machine-detectable lane markings. It can operate in moderate- to heavy-traffic highways and highways only. 

That is to say you can’t let Drive Pilot operate your vehicle around town in stop-and-go traffic. Its application is strictly limited to highways, and only specific highways with the right conditions at that. When traveling on roads with toll booths, tunnels and traffic control devices, the system will disengage itself. In addition, this Level 3 ADAS is yet to be able to work in inclement weather.

The Driver’s Control

When a predetermined driving situation is met, your Mercedes will give you the option to activate Drive Pilot. Should you choose to, Drive Pilot will take over, so that you can confidently take your attention off the road to reply to a text message, but the system constantly uses cameras and sensors to make sure you are awake instead of dozing off, so that whenever a danger hazard is detected, it will ask you to regain control of your vehicle. 

In Particular, Mercedes uses an infrared camera to monitor the driver’s position in the seat, the driver’s face and eyelids to detect sleeping, as well as detecting anything out of the ordinary that might prevent the driver from always remaining ready to take over the vehicle once requested by Drive Pilot.

If the driver really dozes off or does not respond when the system requests him or her to be adequately mindful of the surroundings, or in the case that the driver is incapacitated by health issues or other reasons and still doesnt manually take control of the vehicle, the car will automatically pull over and stop. The system will activate the Automatic Emergency Stop Assist system and alert first responders for emergency assistance.

When Drive Pilot detects less than ideal conditions that would prevent it from proper operation, like when the roads ahead are unsafe for autonomous driving, it will notify the driver to take over the driving and expects a human response within 10 seconds. 

Pricing

The Drive Pilot is an optional package. If you want it in your Mercedes, you will need to pay for all the preparation, including the installation of a more precise positioning system than a typical GPS, a rear window camera, digital HD map technology, the necessary lidar, and external microphones to detect the sirens of emergency vehicles in the case the driver is incapacitated due to health issues. For the price you pay, you will also get redundant steering, braking and electrical systems installed for extra safety. 

Once all preparation is in place and the Drive Pilot is ready to be activated, the automaker’s representative said that the owner might need to pay an additional fee for subscription to the technology. However, as of now, the automaker has yet to make a firm statement regarding the subscription fee.

Notable Mercedes Models with Drive Pilot

The recent 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury sedan is packed with state-of-the-art technology, including the Level 3 Drive Pilot and its cousin, the Level 4 Intelligent Park Pilot. Like other recent Mercedes models, the 2021 S-Class comes with the standard Driver Assistance Package, but the list of ADAS boasts major improvements regarding operational speeds, functionality and sensitivity.

The S-Class comes with a Level 4 high-automation valet parking function—the Intelligent Park Pilot. It builds on its cousin, the Drive Pilot, and can be activated later. It is designed to allow the vehicle to park itself in parking spaces properly outfitted with the required infrastructure, without the need for the driver to be monitoring nearby at all.

At the command of the driver via a smartphone app, the S-Class can autonomously park itself without the driver being within sight and the same happens when the car is summoned again. What makes Intelligent Park Pilot superior to existing similar technology is that the driver doesn’t have to standby for monitoring as the car makes its way in and out of the parking slot.

How It All Started For Mercedes

It all started on October 1st, 1986, at the commencement of the Eureka PROMOTHEUS Pan-European program, the most ambitious R&D project at the time in the autonomous driving field. The project also was funded with an unprecedented amount of 749 million Euros. Its full name was the Program for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety, with Daimler-Benz as the project lead and involved a number of major European automakers and electronics manufacturers, as well as prestigious universities and leading technology experts. 

Mercedes-Benz built several self-driving prototypes, but with little success until they re-engineered their W140 S-Class. This sedan managed to drive on its own all the way from Munich in Germany to Copenhagen in Denmark and back, a roundtrip of a total of 1,043 miles or 1,678 kilometers, with minimal monitoring. The re-engineered W140 S-Class outperformed all the prototypes by far. 

Professor Ernst Dickmanns from the University of Munich was the man behind this automated driving system. To let the vehicle detect real-time driving conditions and actively react in a timely manner, saccadic computer vision, various microprocessors and a number of cameras were employed. The four cameras collect images, and send this information to the computer for continuous real-time evaluation, and the computer then relies on this input to control the steering, the throttle and the brakes to drive the car to its designated destination safely.

The Eureka PROMETHEUS project lasted only eight years, and when it ended, it paved the way for further research and development by Mercedes-Benz. In August 2013, the Mercedes-Benz S 500 Intelligent Drive ran its first test ride. This pilot system was eventually retired and now displayed at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. A successor of the early version of this technology is the renowned Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which was put into series production. Now the E-Class’ autonomous system is an optional package offered on all Mercedes-Benz models.

The Status Quo in Automated Driving

Levels of Automated Driving

Level 1 – Driver Assistance: While technically Level 0 means no automated capabilities at all, Level 1 is the lowest level of automation and technically does not qualify as “automated driving”, but only “driver assistance” features. These driver assistance include adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control is a feature that better makes sure your vehicle maintains a safe distance from the car in front. This doesn’t qualify as automated driving, since the driver is still required to actively monitor all other aspects of driving such as steering and braking. 

Level 2 – Partial Automation: Here we are moving into true automated driving. The vehicle can handle steering, accelerating, braking, lane-centering, and even lane changes, but the driver must keep their hands on the steering wheels and actively remain in control at all times. In real life, it is reported that in many incidents, this Level 2 system can still allow the car to lurch within its lane while driving straight and toward the outer line during lane swaps. 

Level 3 – Conditional Automation: Level 3 automated systems like Mercedes’ Drive Pilot can detect and evaluate real-time environmental conditions, including weather and road conditions, and can make informed decisions accordingly, such as changing lanes to pass a slower vehicle. But they can only operate properly when driving on the highways, and when certain conditions are met, thus the name “conditional automation”. And the driver still needs to remain alert at all times to readily take over the system upon its request, in case the road ahead is unsuitable for it to operate or some less-than-ideal conditions make it unable to take care of the driving.

Level 4 – High Automation: High automation means almost full autonomy, that is you need not stay alert at all times. You can, say, doze off for a while or immerse yourself in a book, but for Level 4 automation to work, you must be within a geofenced or otherwise designated area. This area must have the required infrastructure and conditions, and must be pre-approved by the system, usually an urban environment where top speeds reach an average of 30mph. As such, at the moment, there are a few Level 4 vehicles but the applications for all of them are in ridesharing. 

The 4 is superior to Level in that Level 4 vehicles can intervene if things go wrong or there is a system failure, which means human input is not required in most circumstances. However, you can still choose to manually override the system.

Level 5 – Full Automation: Full autonomy means the vehicle can drive itself anywhere, any time, totally free from the limit of geofencing, without the need for the driver to be in the car, so it’s understandable that they won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals. At the moment, Level 5 cars are undergoing testing, but it will take a while before we’ll see the very first fully automated cars on public roads. 

How Far Along We Are

Currently, self-driving cars sold in the United States are limited to Level 2 ADAS, including the hands-on Hyundai Highway Driving Assist and the hands-free Ford Blue Cruise, and more recently General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. 

As with all other self-driving technologies available in the United States, both General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot stop short and only qualify as Level 2 ADAS, which are partially automated systems. These partial self-driving systems require the driver to actively keep an eye on the vehicle’s surroundings and road conditions, and monitor the system to make sure it is working properly. Level 2 systems can make a few jobs less stressful for drivers, including braking and accelerating, lane-centering, and lane changes, given that the drivers don’t take their eyes off the road. 

Audi was actually first to develop Level 3 ADAS, but it had to cancel  its Traffic Jam Pilot system because it couldn’t get regulatory approval by the US government. Recently, Audi introduced the next generation of their flagship sedan Audi A8, the world’s first Level 3 vehicle put in series production, to be followed by the 2019 Audi A8L. It features the earlier Traffic Jam Pilot, which employs a lidar scanner with advanced sensor fusion and processing power, and built-in redundancies for extra safety should a component fail.

However, when the A8 and A8L hit the market, the regulatory process for self-driving vehicles in the United States shifted from federal guidance to state-by-state mandates. So the A8L is yet to be classified as a Level 3 but stops short at Level 2. It is now sold without key hardware and software required to operate Level 3 capabilities. Fortunately for Audi fans in Europe, Audi will roll out the full Level 3 Audi A8L with Traffic Jam Pilot, with Germany being the first market. 

Honda also launched a new Level 3 system in its Legend sedan, however it’s available in limited quantities in Japan only for now. Soon, Mercedes-Benz will debut its Drive Pilot with the redesigned 2021 S-Class and new 2022 EQS flagship sedans, initially on German highways. Drive Pilot is developed for the US market, but the U.S. regulators have not yet approved Level 3 ADAS. 

So at the moment, Mercedes has yet to define Drive Pilot availability or pricing. It’s expected that when the technology is later approved for use in the US market, the automaker will unlock the Level 3 self-driving capabilities through an over-the-air software update. 

What The Future of Self-Driving Cars Looks Like

While the future of Level 3 vehicles is promising, with exciting news on the development of Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles in sight, the automotive industry still needs to face a few speed bumps first before mainstream production of autonomous cars can see healthy increases. While we don’t lack technological capability, the problem lies in public concerns over digital security, that is whether the automakers can guard against attacks against automotive software. 

The Ponemon Institute recently published a report titled “Securing the Connected Car: A Study of Automotive Industry Cybersecurity Practices”. This is a survey of 593 security practitioners, product development professionals, and engineers. More than two thirds of the participants voiced the need for better cybersecurity before they can accept self-driving cars. 

 

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