Hamburg, Germany –When Mercedes-Benz unveiled its new S-Class sedan at the Airbus factory in Hamburg Wednesday, the flagship car could have driven onto the stage itself.
The latest generation of Mercedes’ most prestigious vehicle will use on-board cameras and radar sensors to monitor traffic and, with the press of a button, it will literally drive itself at speeds up to 60 km/h.
The German maker is insistent that this is not the world’s first self-driving car. Driver input is still needed – at least once every 30 seconds. If the car does not sense any input on the steering wheel, it will sound an alarm and the system will shut itself off.
While it’s working, though, the new S-Class will use its twin windshield-mounted cameras to monitor lane markings to keep the car within its lane, and radar to monitor other vehicles ahead, behind and to the side. It will speed up and slow down as needed in traffic up to a speed of 60 km/h, brake the car to a complete halt if necessary and then accelerate again when traffic allows. It will also use individual brakes to steer the car.
Safety systems exist in some current premium vehicles that will apply individual brakes to nudge the cars back into their lane if they cross painted markings without indicating, and which will brake the car to avoid collisions. They’re intended to assist drowsy drivers, though they assist distracted drivers, too. Other systems use sonar cruise control to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front.
These have always been considered preventative systems, but the new combination of more than 20 Mercedes systems is the first to allow continuous driving with such minimal input.
Spokespeople for Mercedes acknowledged that a driver could circumvent the system by nudging the wheel with his or her knees while reading a newspaper on the Don Valley Parkway at 60 km/h, but said the system still requires driver input and is intended to protect them from potential distraction.
In fact, the driver is only required to provide steering input in order to satisfy authorities that this is not a “self-driving” car. In theory, the need for input on the wheel could be discarded entirely with no difference in driving. As well, in theory, the system could be set to work at much higher speeds and is already developed enough to do so.
Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of Daimler AG, said the S-Class will not take away the pleasure of driving from its owners. He likened driving to skiing, in which the enjoyment of the downhill run is tempered by having to line up for the lifts. The new “partly autonomous driving” systems have created the world’s safest car, he said.
The 2014 S-Class also uses its windshield-mounted cameras to monitor the quality of the road ahead, and will instantly alter the suspension settings if it detects bumps or railway tracks or potholes in the pavement. This “magic body control” will not be available in Canada because we’ll be getting only all-wheel drive models – it’s just sold for now with rear-wheel drive cars elsewhere in the world.
Prices have not yet been announced, though the current S-Class begins at $109,900. There will be two engine options sold at first in Canada: the S550 that will be sold in showrooms in November, and the S63 AMG that will follow in February, 2014. There will be long wheelbase versions of both. Next year, there will be a plug-in hybrid that will complement the hybrid and the diesel sold in Europe.