In the 1950s, the most hi-tech feature available for a motor vehicle was a vacuum tube AM radio. Current vehicles available now come equipped with a vast array of gizmos ranging from GPS navigation, infotainment, and smart cruise control systems that brake to below the preselected speed when traffic slows. All these techno features pale in comparison to a Mercedes S 500 that can drive itself. On September 9, during a media preview of this week’s Frankfurt Auto Show, Daimler AG displayed the new vehicle, which is capable of driving itself on freeways and in city traffic using “near-production” technology.
At the media preview, Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche explained that in August, a driverless Mercedes S 500 “Intelligent Drive” research vehicle retraced the 64 mile route between the German cities of Manheim and Pforzheim. This was a historical route that was navigated by Bertha Benz in 1888. Ms. Benz was the wife of Karl Benz, who patented the first self-propelled motor vehicle in 1886. Herr Zetsche said the car used sensors similar to those already in production on the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the brand’s top-of-the-line sedan. A navigation system, called “Route Pilot,” allowed the car to find its way to a destination.
The self-driving vehicle contained several additional pieces of hardware not found on production cars, including a color camera mounted behind the windshield that could read stoplights, additional long-range radars to detect oncoming vehicles, a stereo camera to function like human eyes to detect distant objects, and a rear-facing camera designed to detect landmarks entered into a digital map.
Don’t bother queuing up at a LA dealership to purchase one of these vehicles. Daimler has not set a date when the “Intelligent Drive” vehicle will go into production. Also, a price has not been set, but S Class Mercedes currently available start at just under $100,000. When pricing becomes available, it’s a good bet that it will make the current S Class vehicles a “cheap bargain” in comparison. Beyond pricing and availability, current safety regulations in many nations currently would prohibit the vehicle. For example, international standards governing steering systems prohibit automatic steering at speeds above 10 kilometers per hour (about six miles per hour).
In 2010, Google entered the autonomous driving arena with a Toyota Prius that had a laser-radar locating systems mounted on its roof. Daimler, however, notes that it has been working on autonomous driving technology for nearly 30 years—long before Google’s experiments with self-piloting cars started getting wide attention in 2010. Daimler has a long track record for building safe vehicles. Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of reducing accidents caused by driver error and inattention.