An S-Class sedan rolls out of the shadows. The rear door opens and Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche emerges to an excited reception. But the applause at the Frankfurt Auto Show is as much, if not more, an expression of amazement at the empty space where the driver should be. The S 500 Intelligent Drive research car chauffeuring Dr. Zetsche onto the stage is busy turning the long-held dream of the self-driving car into reality – and not only over a few short metres in Frankfurt. Last summer, the autonomous S-Class proved its mettle on a test drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim. The route covered 50 kilometres on country roads and another 53 kilometres through towns and villages, taking in 18 traffic circles, hundreds of traffic lights, intersections, pedestrian crossings and construction zones along the way. In so doing, it made history all over again. One hundred and twenty-five years after Bertha Benz embarked on the first long-distance car journey in her husband Carl’s new invention, Mercedes-Benz has become the world’s first automaker to show that a car can drive itself on both urban and cross-country roads. An array of camera and radar sensors and intelligent 3-D maps allows the car to control the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal fully autonomously. “I’m proud that we’ve achieved this with a vehicle not far removed from current production models,” says Professor Ralf Guido Herrtwich, Director of Driver Assistance and Chassis Systems. The project has shown that self-driving cars are now within reach. The new S-Class, with its ability to drive autonomously in heavy traffic, offers a taste of what lies ahead.
In a few years, Mercedes-Benz drivers will reap the rewards of today’s research. No longer will drivers be obliged to keep their hands on the wheel over monotonous commuter journeys or long freeway stretches. Herrtwich and his team are aiming to make autonomous driving on freeways a reality by 2020, before extending the technology to the rest of the road network. But there are still a few hurdles to overcome, such as interaction with other drivers in bottlenecks and with pedestrians. Indeed, the test took an inadvertent turn for the amusing when pedestrians paused to let the car continue over crosswalks, only to find it waiting equally patiently for them. Clearly a car with manners as well as intelligence.