ABC7's Dave Kunz takes you behind the wheel as Mercedes rolls into next level of self-driving cars.
LOS ANGELES -- Recently, I was in the driver's seat of a 2024 Mercedes EQS, but I wasn't driving - the car was!
Welcome to the next phase of high-tech driver assistance: Level 3 autonomy.
"The paradigm shift to Level 3 is that you can take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel. You're no longer the driver, you're a receptive fallback-ready user," explained Lucas Bolster, an engineer with Mercedes-Benz USA who's been working the brand's autonomous driving technology for the past eight years.
The car I drove was not some off-in-the-future prototype, it's a production car going on sale late this year in California and Nevada, with regulatory approval. Drive Pilot is the first system that allows you to relax and let the vehicle take over.
Mercedes-Benz said I was the first person outside the company to get to try it out.
Behind the wheel, I was able to look around and talk to passengers.
"I didn't have to keep my eyes forward, nor touch the steering wheel at all," he said.
The EQS with Drive Pilot took care of all the steering, acceleration and braking. Level 2 autonomy came along with a big splash from General Motors in 2017 with its Super Cruise.
Hands-off-the-wheel is okay, but you still have to watch the road at all times. Ford has a similar system called Blue Cruise, and Tesla offers driving assist, but only at Level 2 right now.
Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot is the first of its kind because, under certain conditions, you can look away from the road - completely legally. This allows a driver to take advantage of all the features of the Mercedes-Benz MBUX infotainment system.
"Some of the things that we've changed in our head unit to allow you to make use of your free time now, would be doing things like in-car office, web browsing, you can go on YouTube, you can play some games in the head unit, or you could watch a movie," said Bolster.
Extra technology is obviously built into the car to allow this to work. This includes LiDAR, high-definition GPS with centimeter accuracy, the latest cameras, backup systems for chassis control and electrical circuits - all tied together with lots of processing power.
The driver is still a key component, remaining awake, alert, and ready to resume control when asked. Drive Pilot is so sophisticated; it can even detect emergency vehicles approaching from the rear and can ask the driver to take over.
On the road, you'll get a message and chime that Drive Pilot is available. You tap the "OK" button on the wheel, and the car is then very much driving itself.
The system only works when you're on a freeway and going less than 40 miles per hour. But in Southern California, obviously, that's a lot of the time. The system has to analyze exactly where the vehicle is for Drive Pilot to engage.
Oh, but one aspect is a bit of a bummer: it only works in dry conditions at this early stage. Wet roads add another layer of challenge, so there is a microphone in one of the wheel wells to detect the sounds of water coming off the tire.
For some, just being able to use the system in most of our heavy freeway traffic will likely make it worth the $2,500 annual subscription for the feature, on top of the $100,000+ price of a Mercedes-Benz EQS electric vehicle. They'll also offer it on the gasoline-powered S-class starting early next year - another six-figure car.
But like other technologies that have come along over the years, Mercedes says this will eventually trickle down to less expensive models. Two examples are airbags and anti-lock brakes. Those debuted on Mercedes-Benz's top-of-the-line S-class back in the '80s, and now you can't buy a new car without them.
Level 4 autonomy, where the driver would be allowed to doze off because the car provides its own backup, is being worked on right now.
"We're looking to bring Level 4 to highway driving by the end of the decade," said Bolster.