It?s a little unnerving to be a passenger when the driver suddenly takes both hands off the steering wheel.
It?s even odder when the wheel continues to move, steering the car along its path while we stay obediently behind the vehicle ahead of us.
I?m familiar with autonomous vehicles, cars that can drive themselves, but only from seeing them at advanced test facilities.
This fall, you?ll actually be able to buy one: the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which will feature the optional ?Intelligent Drive? system.
Just don?t expect to just punch in your destination and have the car take you there.
According to my chauffeur, Dr. Thomas Weber, a Daimler research board member who?s here from Germany to demonstrate the car, lawmakers prefer to take things gradually.
?The technology is there,? he says. ?Around the globe, there is a regulation that the driver always has to steer the car. We are in discussions with regulators, based on these technologies, to move step by step in the direction where more autonomous features are allowed.?
Most of the technologies the autonomous system consists of have been available on several vehicles, from Mercedes and other manufacturers, for some time.
These include active cruise-control systems that monitor vehicles in front and keep a pre-set distance; systems that will slow or completely stop the car if they detect an object or pedestrian; cameras that monitor lane markings and warn the driver if he?s veering over them, or actively brake to bring the car back into its lane if the driver doesn?t respond; and blind-spot monitors that determine if another vehicle is alongside.
To meet current regulations, the S-Class is programmed to steer itself, and to accelerate, slow down and stop, to match traffic flow, at speeds of up to 60 km/h and for only a short period of time. It can follow slight bends in the road, but can?t turn a corner. The system has to be activated when the driver wants to use it.
It uses a radar system, mounted in the front grille, and a stereoscopic camera above the rearview mirror. To steer, itself, the car monitors the lines on the road, as well as what the vehicle in front is doing.
?You have to be absolutely sure that the actions the car is taking are safe,? Weber says. ?We need two independent signals to know if the car in front of you will stop. We detect it by radar and by stereo camera, and if both independent sources tell the system that there is a critical situation, then (the car can react) and there is no risk behind it.?
After 10 seconds of hands-free driving, a warning symbol flashes on the instrument cluster, which is actually a display screen, as this new model doesn?t have analog gauges. Ignore that, and you get a warning chime. If you still don?t put your hands on the wheel, the self-driving feature shuts off.
The sensors do other stuff, too:
The S-Class can parallel-park or back into a space by itself.
It can warn if cars or people are nearby when you?re backing up.
It can detect pedestrians or animals ahead at night and shine a headlight on them.
It can warn if you?re about to smack a car in front and stop.
It can figure out if you?re too tired to drive.
It can monitor the road ahead and adjust its suspension if it?s about to hit a bump or pothole.
Is a self-driving car appropriate, when distracted driving is a major factor in road safety?
Weber believes it is. He says customers are asking for the features.
?People around the world are always fascinated by the next step of technology,? he says. ?People love driving their cars outside of the city, but going to their office in terrible traffic is not enjoyable.
?You can operate the car in an autonomous way and enjoy the situation by checking your email, or concentrate on phone calls.?
In future, complete autonomy will be possible, he says.
?On a holiday, you could go 10 minutes up to the (highway), then push a button and start sleeping.
?The car drives you to the (destination) and you wake up, and you are there.
?That?s not possible today, but these scenarios are discussed in our research.
?And with the S-Class we have the first important step,? he says. ?The next features are in preparation.
?And they will come soon.?
- The all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class will have an optional Intelligent Drive system that is capable of driving and steering itself for short periods at low speeds - photo by Jil McIntosh - for Wheels
- Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Mercedes-Benz board of management for research, chauffeured me in Toronto to demonstrate the 2014 S-Class' self-driving ability - photo by Jil McIntosh - for Wheels