New Mercedes S Class Promises Level 3 Autonomy in Traffic Jams in Germany

Last week Mercedes unveiled an all-new redesigned 2021 S-Class, the latest revision of their venerated flagship luxury sedan. Tesla has been the topic on every legacy auto executive’s mind, and the 2021 S-Class provides Mercedes’ latest answer for how the firm plans to compete in a world of software-centric cars. Daimler made a point of highlighting the car’s features in areas that Tesla is best known for –– infotainment, over the air updates, and yes –– even autonomy.

Mercedes claims that the new S class, which launches later this year, will be capable of Level 3 autonomous driving. For those not familiar with the SAE levels of autonomy, “Level 3” refers to an autonomous system that allows the user to divert their attention in certain scenarios. In the case of Mercedes Drive Pilot, they claim the software will allow users to drive autonomously in Germany when in heavy traffic on the highway. If traffic started picking up, the system would beep and force the driver to take back control.

These are interesting claims and developments, so let’s dig into this Automotive News story about the feature together now.

Mercedes-Benz’s newly redesigned S-Class luxury sedan, revealed last week here, represents a big step forward in the automaker’s eyes-off autonomous driving technology.

Automotive News

I suppose anything is a big step forward from nothing, sure.

But the new S-Class faces a real dilemma: Major markets such as the United States are not ready for the technology yet. 

Germany is.

Automotive News

So, the technology is ready but the regulations aren’t? Right. Please tell me more.

Three years ago, government leaders enacted landmark legislation permitting motorists to hand over full driving control of their vehicle to its on-board autonomous systems if specific conditions are met. But virtually every other country in the world is still grappling with the question of how to safely roll out the technology on their roads.

Markus Schäfer, head of technical development at Mercedes-Benz Cars, said the carmaker has a lot of persuading to do, given the patchwork of legal jurisdictions both in Europe and abroad that are still evolving. 

“It’s trying to read a crystal ball,” Schäfer told reporters at the presentation of the luxury sedan here, where the S-Class is built. The ongoing discussion could even result in changes to the technology. “It’s possible that legislators come up with fresh hurdles that in the end require further sensors,” he said. 

Automotive News

How hard could it possibly be to persuade them when Mercedes autonomous software is so amazing?

Available soon 

The new S-Class could become the first car to offer motorists Level 3 autonomy, which means the car can drive itself under specific conditions when Mercedes launches its Drive Pilot feature in Germany later this year. 

Automotive News

Wow!!! The first Level 3 autonomous car!!! What an amazing technical feat! And launching in Germany within a few months, on top of that. Mercedes has truly changed the world!

The feature is currently restricted to highway traffic jams, but it will allow drivers to legally divert their attention from monitoring the road — an aspect not allowed under Level 2 systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot. 

Should conditions depart from that narrow operating envelope, the car will indicate that drivers have 10 seconds to assume control before the vehicle turns on its emergency lights, gradually decelerates and comes to a controlled stop. 

Automotive News

So, you’re telling me that the software is so bad it only works in a traffic jam… a situation where the car is essentially stopped?

This capability is nothing new. ADAS systems have been capable of nudging a car through stop and go traffic since before Autopilot 1 in 2014. The only thing that’s new here is that Mercedes will apparently be able to disable the driver attention checks –– also known as the “nag” –– while the user is stuck in a traffic jam.

If Mercedes is allowed to do this in Germany, I see no reason why other ADAS providers including Tesla Autopilot couldn’t also allow the driver to take their hands off the wheel in a traffic jam. If not the German government would be accused of playing favorites, and breaking their word to treat all automakers operating in Germany fairly. Mercedes may it call it “the first Level 3 car”, but the usable context is so narrow its almost a joke.

Mercedes is still finalizing series development of the feature, which as things stand, cannot be guaranteed to operate under all weather conditions.

Automotive News

So let me get this straight… if you have the latest Mercedes-Benz S class, and you’re in Germany, and on the highway, and there’s a traffic jam, and the weather is great… you can take your hands off the wheel but need to be ready to takeover at any moment. And they’re “still finalizing development”.

A truly revolutionary milestone in the history of autonomy.

Audi’s setback serves the industry as a cautionary tale.

By the time that a homologation rules-setting body finalized a process to approve Audi’s system, Audi said it was too late to make the necessary changes in the A8.

Automotive News

Ahhhh, darn! They didn’t pass the regulations in time. We totally were about to ship our autonomous Audi, but now we don’t have time. Gosh darn it. Oh well.

I wouldn’t worry about Mercedes though. They are completely different than Audi. They’re not going to have any of the problems that stopped the A8 from launching with Level 3 autonomy.

Questions of liability are central to the issue, since manufacturers, rather than drivers, are expected to be held responsible in collisions. That shift in responsibility is a problem unique to Level 3. 

Automotive News

Hold the phone. You’re telling me that after limiting the Level 3 system to a brand new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, in Germany, on the highway, in a traffic jam, in beautiful weather… the system is still going to get into a fender bender?! Crashes are an unavoidable part of any production system, but it sounds like Mercedes DrivePilot really sucks.

Meanwhile, Tesla is refining much more advanced software with human supervision. By the time they activate Level 3 driving, they’ll know exactly how often the system messes up in traffic jams on a statistical level. That, and early investments in insurance, will help Tesla surmount the challenges Daimler and many others are clearly struggling with.

Schäfer noted that safety laws in some parts of the United States require that, when a law enforcement vehicle is parked on the right shoulder, drivers in the slow lane must change lanes to prevent any risk of harm to a police officer. As the Mercedes Drive Pilot is not capable of performing such a maneuver on its own, this presents an additional problem. 

Schäfer confirmed the company is in discussions with U.S. authorities over a more airtight regulatory framework. 

Automotive News

That’s why you aren’t launching your “Level 3” highway traffic jam feature in the United States? Because you can’t figure out how to make the system change lanes when a siren / caution lights are detected? That sounds like a pretty lame excuse to me. Call it Level 3, Level 4, Level 420 –– it’s clear this system is nowhere close to autonomous.

He declined to estimate a time frame for bringing conditional autonomy to the United States. The benefits need to be weighed against the legal risks, he said. 

Sources at other German carmakers agreed that the litigation-friendly American legal system is a core concern, along with the U.S. system of self-certification. By comparison, Europe’s decision to homologate a vehicle’s various systems provides greater protection from damage claims, they said.

“There is an open mind in the U.S. when it comes to regulations,” Schäfer said. “You just have to consider what the consequences might be should something happen there.” 

Automotive News

Translation: Not gonna happen, bud.

What does this mean for autonomy?

Overall, it’s good. But it could be a little confusing for consumers.

Given the earth shattering potential of autonomy, every legacy automaker and their mother is going to want to claim they’ve cracked the nut –– or at least that they’re leading the race. They’re going to make those claims regardless of how far along they actually are.

Mercedes’ partnership with Nvidia is promising, but claims that they have the first Level 3 car is nothing more than a fat load of legacy auto bullshit. This is just the latest iteration of ADAS systems you’ve seen from companies like Tesla, MobilEye, Nvidia, and many others. Expect a lot of confusing messaging from autonomy players each trying to convince riders that their technology is the best. Of course, messaging only goes so far. At the end of the day, opinions will be formed based on how the software actually drives, and what the user experience is actually like.

The bright side of all this is that we have more and more people pushing to advance the regulation around autonomy and advanced driver assistance. If Tesla is the only company trying to deploy Autopilot, don’t expect European governments to be too accommodating in extending regulatory approval to a technology that could destroy one of their most important local industries.

But if it’s Daimler that is trying to get approval for “Level 3 autonomy” and making it a flagship feature of their flagship sedan… well, I’m guessing they will get approval. It sounds like the regulatory framework is already in place.

That opens the door for Tesla and other autonomy players to loosen crippling restrictions, and even eliminate “the nag” altogether in certain scenarios. When America and China see Level 3 autonomy deployed in Europe –– even if it’s just Level 3 on paper –– they will rush to enact the regulatory framework they’ll need to keep up, or even leapfrog competing economies.

That makes me excited for the future of autonomy.

Concept Rendering Video

Here’s an old video where Mercedes describes how DrivePilot “could potentially work” (this was before they limited it to traffic jams only, but gives you the general idea of what it’s like to use).

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