Mercedes-Benz, whose origins lie in the invention of the automobile by Carl Benz in 1886, is well on the way to revolutionizing mobility yet again, this time by developing fully automated vehicles. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, can even today be very specific about what tomorrow’s self-driving cars will be capable of: “Not only will the Mercedes-Benz of the future produce zero emissions, it will also drive autonomously. It’ll be safer and more luxurious than ever, and fully connected as well. A comfortable retreat for the trip between home and the office – for working, communicating, relaxing, enjoying.” One hundred and thirty years after Carl Benz turned travel by horseless carriage into a reality, Mercedes-Benz is paving the way for travel by driverless car. The first highly automated vehicles are expected to form part of the streetscape by 2025, after which fully automated driving will only be a short step away. A highly advanced system of sensors, precise environment maps and total connectivity will, in the future, allow both cars and trucks to reach their destination safely and efficiently. The F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle unveiled in Las Vegas in 2015 makes the vision of fully automated driving a tangible reality in which the car is turned into a mobile living space. The passengers are free to use their time in the car exactly as they wish. The F 015’s interior design mirrors this transformation perfectly: With its swivelling armchair-style seats, fine walnut floor and ultra-HD screens in the sidewalls, the inside of the car feels more like a lounge in a futuristic luxury hotel. Rather than being the centre of attention at all times, the steering wheel only extends from the dashboard when occupants decide not to drive in fully automatic mode. In the future, autonomous vehicles will not only offer their occupants supreme travel comfort, they will benefit the environment as well. The F 015, for instance, has been designed for the F-Cell plug-in hybrid drive system – meaning that its batteries can be recharged from either an on-board fuel cell or a power socket – while the electric drive means the car produces zero tailpipe emissions. Large LED panels at both the front and rear furthermore allow the car to communicate with pedestrians, and there is even a high-precision laser projection system for marking a zebra crossing on the road, if required, to ensure safe passage across it.
The F 015 research vehicle, the Vision Tokyo show car that also debuted in 2015, as well as the S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE all demonstrate how much progress Mercedes-Benz has already made in its quest to make this vision a reality. In 2013, the S-Class in question was equipped with supplementary systems that enabled it to complete a fully automated drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a distance of 100 kilometres, replete with oncoming traffic, turning manoeuvres and double-parked cars. It was the same route that Bertha Benz covered in 1888 on her pioneering automotive journey. Many of today’s production models from Mercedes-Benz are able to substantially reduce the driver’s workload and provide assistance, meaning that semi-automated driving is already possible. This is best illustrated by the innovative DRIVE Pilot feature in the new E-Class, which has greatly enhanced the semi-automated driving functionality on freeways and highways. With the help of a stereo multi-purpose camera, multi-stage radar sensors, ultrasonic sensors and a 360-degree camera, the vehicle forms a detailed picture of its surroundings and uses the amassed data for a variety of comfort and safety functions. DRIVE Pilot can come to the driver’s aid in many different situations, such as maintaining the correct distance from the vehicle in front, obeying traffic signs, braking and steering, as well as moving ahead again in traffic jams. Another example is the Active Lane Change Assist: If the driver signals the intention to change lanes for longer than two seconds, the Active Lane Change Assist will steer the new E-Class into the adjacent lane. However, the car will only perform the lane change autonomously if the system of sensors does not detect any vehicles in the relevant safety zone. All the driver has to do is monitor the procedure and be ready to intervene manually at any moment. To anyone who is used to driving an older car, however, even that will sound like science fiction come true.
As revolutionary as the notion of highly automated and, eventually, fully automated driving may sound, implementing the concept no longer requires a technical revolution. It is just a matter of refining and improving tried-and-tested systems. One look at the figures also clearly shows how important technological advancement is for Mercedes-Benz. In 2016 and 2017, Daimler AG is investing over $20 billion in research and development, with a further $20 billion being spent on new property, plants and equipment. The Mercedes-Benz engineers have almost reached their goal as far as “sensor fusion” is concerned: Cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors relay data that is then evaluated with the help of intelligent algorithms. This enables a vehicle to recognize signs, obstacles, road markings and other road users and create a spatial image of them, which in turn provides the technology with the basis needed to execute safe braking and steering manoeuvres. To extend the vehicle’s field of vision beyond the range of its own sensors, however, Car-to-X communication still needs to be expanded, and it must factor in data from other sources into its environment calculations, such as the sensors of remote waypoints and other vehicles. Improvements will still have to be made to networking in this regard, and the infrastructure further developed. This is one of the reasons why Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz formed a consortium to acquire map provider HERE: Road and environment maps in HD quality are one of the fundamental requirements for highly and, later, fully automated systems. Another important task is one for the legal experts and politicians rather than the engineers: A legal framework for autonomous driving needs to be established at an international level. Most traffic regulations are rooted in the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Experts from around the world are therefore working on updating and standardizing the regulations. Provided that humans can override and switch off the computer systems at any time, highly and fully automated driving will likely get the green light soon.