Mercedes-Benz EQS: A Glimpse into the Future of Autonomous Driving
In the words of Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'” While the authenticity of this famous quote is debatable, it does underline the fact that sometimes customers may not be aware of what they truly desire. This sentiment carries over to the automotive industry, where innovation often outpaces consumer expectations.
One such innovation is the 2024 Mercedes-Benz EQS, equipped with the advanced driver assistance system known as Drive Pilot Level 3. This groundbreaking system represents a significant step towards fully autonomous vehicles. Instead of merely desiring “faster horses,” we are now on the verge of harnessing the power of technology to let the car do the driving for us.
Drive Pilot is the world’s first-ever active traffic jam assistant that allows the driver to relinquish control of the vehicle entirely. Imagine being able to scroll through YouTube, read a captivating book, or engage in road trip games with your passengers while navigating through the dreaded freeway gridlock. Initially, it may seem counterintuitive and reckless to take your eyes off the road, but my experience during a 50-minute drive between Santa Monica and Mid-Wilshire proved otherwise. The Drive Pilot system effortlessly assuaged any concerns and made the journey a breeze.
To fully comprehend the capabilities of the Drive Pilot system, Mercedes insists on an educational process for owners. Before activating the system, I had to watch an eight-minute video on the EQS’ Hyperscreen infotainment display. This video provided a comprehensive understanding of Drive Pilot, including its operational conditions, driver override options, and deactivation procedures. The infotainment system also offers abundant information about the vehicle’s surroundings and guidance on how to utilize the Drive Pilot system effectively, reducing any apprehensions regarding automation.
To activate Drive Pilot, certain criteria must be met. The car must be on a highway with high-definition, centimeter-accurate GPS mapping, a significant improvement over traditional, meter-accurate GPS. The lane lines on the road surface must be well-marked, and there must be a lead vehicle in the same lane. Drive Pilot operates within a speed limit of 40 miles per hour, making it suitable for use in moderate to heavy traffic and fair weather conditions during daytime hours. This conditional automation requires the driver to be prepared to take control when necessary but allows uninterrupted enjoyment during congested highway commutes.
The hardware supporting Drive Pilot includes a sophisticated lidar array located in the grille, rear-facing cameras, and microphones that detect approaching emergency vehicles. Moisture sensors in the wheel wells continuously monitor road conditions, while a high-definition GPS antenna on the roof ensures precise positioning, compensating for continental drift over time. The comprehensive sensor suite allows the system to keep the car centered on the road, even if there are slight shifts in latitude and longitude.
Inside the vehicle, minor modifications have been made to accommodate Drive Pilot. The steering wheel features activation buttons and indicator lights to inform the driver of the system’s availability and engagement status. Meanwhile, the automatic climate control system ensures the windows remain free of condensation, ensuring optimal visibility in case the driver needs to retake control.
Now, let’s delve into the Drive Pilot experience itself. Once you have activated the system, the car scans the road and surroundings to ensure they meet the necessary requirements. At this point, the thumb buttons on the steering wheel illuminate in white, indicating the system’s readiness. Upon pressing either button and acknowledging the driver information message, the system activates, signaled by the luminescent teal indicators on the steering wheel and climate controls.
The transition from Level 2 driver assistance to Level 3 automation is seamless. The reliance on the high-definition road map replaces the minor side-to-side steering movements associated with camera-based lane departure systems. The lidar array allows the car to make smooth throttle and brake adjustments, ensuring more refined responses compared to radar-based systems. Drive Pilot makes zipper merges and lane changes effortless, maintaining adequate space for neighboring vehicles to prevent opportunistic lane swooping.
It’s important to note that Drive Pilot, unlike some competitor systems, operates strictly within a single lane. However, this limitation enhances the system’s smoothness and ease of use, allowing occupants to make the most of the infotainment features. Once the system is engaged, the driver’s role transitions from a conventional driver to a “fallback-ready user” in compliance with SAE regulations. Distraction is no longer frowned upon, and the infotainment system grants access to built-in YouTube, video games, and even Zoom group meetings. However, it is essential to adhere to local regulations regarding the use of mobile devices while driving, ensuring safety remains a top priority.
To maintain driver attentiveness, the cabin-monitoring infrared cameras ensure that the “fallback-ready user” remains awake and alert. Should the system detect signs of drowsiness or inattention, it will sound a chime and issue notifications to prompt the driver to resume control. These alerts gradually intensify until the driver responds. Failure to respond promptly will result in the car gradually coming to a stop within the lane, activating the emergency flashers to alert other road users to a potential medical emergency.
During my experience with Drive Pilot engaged, the system operated flawlessly without requiring my attention. My front-seat passenger engaged in a game of Shuffle Puck with me using the infotainment screen, and we even took the opportunity to review manufacturer literature discussing the car’s features. The EQS glided smoothly, effortlessly keeping up with traffic flow, far better than I could have managed with my human limitations. Drive Pilot’s flexibility and usability are expected to expand as legislation and GPS mapping become more inclusive, benefitting drivers in various speed ranges and road types.
While conditional automation, such as Level 3 driver assistance, falls short of the elusive self-driving car concept, Mercedes has taken a significant leap forward in realizing this vision. Currently, the Drive Pilot system is available on select versions of the EQS and S-Class sold in California and Nevada. Remarkably, unlike their Level 2 counterparts, Level 3-capable cars will not carry an additional price premium.
However, it is worth noting that there is an annual subscription fee of $2,500 to utilize the Drive Pilot system, accessible through the Mercedes Me app store. While this may raise eyebrows, it is a recurring cost rather than a one-time expense. For frequent commuters who spend significant time in traffic, the ability to reclaim that lost time and enhance productivity could make this investment worthwhile. Considering the EQS’ starting price of $105,550, and the S-Class’ starting price of $115,650, the additional cost seems reasonable to unlock the convenience and comfort of Drive Pilot.
In conclusion, the Mercedes-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot represents a significant step towards the future of autonomous driving. While it offers Level 3 driver assistance, the system goes beyond mere functionality, providing a seamless and enjoyable driving experience. The combination of advanced hardware, strict operational conditions, and intuitive user interfaces make the Drive Pilot system a compelling proposition for those seeking a smarter and more captivating driving experience. With its capability to take over during traffic jams and provide a wide range of infotainment options, the EQS with Drive Pilot is undoubtedly the smartest horse ever ridden.