The self-driving car will be a step closer in 2013 when Mercedes-Benz begins selling its new flagship limousine, which can steer itself.
But like autopilot on planes, the pilot – or driver – will still have to pay attention and be expected to take control when required.
A network of 26 cameras, radars and sensors will help the $200,000-plus S-Class limousine steer itself, reducing fatigue and potentially avoiding collisions.
The new Mercedes-Benz limousine is still 12 months away from going on sale, but the company has already begun an extensive pre-publicity campaign designed to cement the brand's flagship limousine as the world's safest – and most advanced – new car.
A lot has been made of automated driving in recent years, and it was expected that the new S-Class would push that barrier further than ever for a production car.
While it won't drive itself or join a ‘platoon’ of cars in a queue, it will be able to do a bit of both, by maintaining a set distance to the car in front by using a radar-based cruise control system Distronic Plus.
The system has received the added functionality of steering assistance, which means the car can take control of the steering with the aim of following the car in front.
However, there is a catch – drivers of the new flagship sedan will be told they must keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
A torque sensor in the steering column monitors pressure on the wheel, and if there isn't any, the dash will flash and beep warnings and then cancel the steering functionality if the driver doesn't react.
It's a move that Mercedes says will help “relieve motorists when driving is more of a burden than a pleasure – on the monotonous daily commute, for example, or in stop-and-go traffic”.
The system works by monitoring the cars in front and also watching lane markings on either side of the car.The company claims the system will work at speeds between 0-200kmh, though its cornering ability is lessened the higher the speed rises.
It's not designed to take the control away from the driver, but as company spokesman Andrew May told Drive, it's enough for “the driver to delegate control to the car” as a “gradual introduction to autonomous driving”.
Mercedes-Benz functional safety expert Dr Heike Schonerstedt said drivers will still need to have full control of the vehicle and that the enjoyment of driving was a serious consideration.
“We are on the way to autonomous driving... but we don't want to do autonomous driving [for the sake of saying we can] ... we want to do it in situations where driving is more a hassle than fun,” Dr Schonerstedt said.
“Nobody would like to drive in the south of France on a nice street autonomously. But in stop-and-go traffic, in commuter traffic, it's more of a hassle.
“So we will support driving in those situations. I think we will go step-to-step to more autonomous driving, but ... we want to support the driver. And we want, always, the car with the automatic functions to be better than without.
“We are also on the way to accident-free driving,” she said.
“We are working very hard on functions that help to prevent accidents and of course to mitigate them if it's not able at the moment to prevent them.”
Some such accident proofers include the new pedestrian detection system as part of Benz's PreSafe Brake system.
The system will initiate an autonomous braking situation at speeds up to 72kmh, and the company claims that it will avoid a pedestrian impact completely at speeds up to 50kmh.
A new brake assist system can also potentially help avoid T-bone accidents.
If the driver fails to react in time to a car crossing its path, the S-Class will boost the braking power and possibly prevent an impact at speeds lower than 30kmh.
If the speed is higher, the severity of the crash will be cut by about 30 per cent, according to Mercedes-Benz.
The company's seatbelt systems have also been tweaked. A rear-facing radar will monitor traffic and, in the case of a potential rear impact on the S-Class, the car will trigger for the active seatbelt pretensioners to prepare for an impact, and the brakes of the car will tighten up if it's sitting still. This increase in brake pressure aims to reduce whiplash injuries.
Rear seat passengers will potentially be protected by a new airbag seatbelt.
The Beltbag unit inflates a wide airbag across the rear seat passenger's chests. The airbag triples the width of the load that spreads across the body, particularly the ribs, in turn spreading it across a wider area and lessening the severity of the impact on a regular seatbelt.
However, Mercedes-Benz says the Beltbag system will be an added cost option on the S-Class.
Other innovations include extended functionality of the company's driver drowsiness system Attention Assist.
The updated version will actively monitor how attentive the driver is, and can even display how their attention levels fall over a period of time.
The lane keeping assistant will now be able to recognise when a car is overtaking and will actively drive the car back into its lane – by braking the outside wheels – if the driver hasn't seen the other vehicle.
And, while in previous iterations the system only worked to keep you in your lane if the centre or side markings were solid, it will now operate on broken lines such as open overtaking sections of road.
The parking helpers have also seen some changes. The S-Class's Park Assist system will now be able to park in both parallel and perpendicular spots, and will brake and steer the car for the driver (provided the correct gear is chosen and the driver controls the accelerator).
Other advances include improved lighting technology, with the new S-Class set to be offered with LED headlights and tail-lights.
The new lights cut energy use significantly compared to halogen or bi-xenon bulbs, but they will also be able to do some tricky stuff depending on the time of day.
The tail-lights, for instance, will be slightly dimmer at night because the surroundings are darker, and much brighter during the day for better intensity. And if you're sitting in another car behind the S-Class, its brake lights will be brighter when the car is still moving, but will dim when it comes to a complete stop; it's designed to stop annoyance to drivers behind from bright tail lights in traffic.
The headlights have a neat trick, too. When high-beam is engaged the lights use a sensor to pick out oncoming cars or cars ahead in the distance and dim only that section of the light beam, meaning the surroundings will remain well-lit while “masking out other vehicles in the beams' cone of light”.
A camera system will also monitor the road ahead, and if it detects a human on the side of the road, the headlights will point a beam of light at the person and flash several times, alerting both the driver and the pedestrian of the oncoming vehicle.
Mercedes-Benz claims the new S-Class will be the first car ever sold that won't have a single traditional light bulb inside or outside the car. Instead, the car will have 190 LEDs (light emitting diodes) illuminating the road, the inside of the car, the luggage compartment and even the number plates.
The headlights alone are made up of 55 individual LEDs per light assembly. Mercedes-Benz says that using LEDs to see the road ahead equates to a saving of 0.05L/100km of fuel, or 2.1gkm of CO2 per kilometre compared to a car with halogen headlights.
The new S-Class arrives in Australia from November 2013.
- Sydney Morning Herald