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Mercedes E-Class tech tour de force

Class above: Mercedes-Benz’s all-new E-Class is full of party tricks that just might save your life.

From kangaroo spotting to saving eardrums, the new Mercedes E-Class has it all

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Mercedes-Benz logo14 Jul 2016

By RON HAMMERTON

MERCEDES-BENZ’S latest E-Class can change lanes automatically, differentiate between a human pedestrian and a kangaroo or discarded plastic bag blowing across the road, and – should a crash be unavoidable – even take measures protect the occupants’ hearing an instant before a deafening collision.

The level of technology loaded into the 10th-generation large luxury sedan is world-beating, again raising the question of whether Mercedes-Benz has delivered the world’s most advanced car.

No, the new E-Class – arriving in Australia this month in three basic petrol and diesel forms ahead of a gradual range rollout over the next year or so – cannot drive itself.

Well, actually it could, but the engineers have limited the scope of the automated steering, acceleration and braking systems, partly because road rules do not allow it yet and also because Mercedes has not yet added the failsafe systems it believes such a big and scary step requires.

So the technologies that abound in the vehicle as either standard equipment or options fall into the category of driver assist systems – gadgets that help to save drivers from their shortcomings, sometimes without them even knowing it.

In a preview of these technologies in Melbourne this week, Mercedes engineers and product planners broke down the new or upgraded safety tech into 12 chunks, starting at Drive Pilot – partly automated steering, lane changing and stopping technologies – and finishing with the multi-beam LED headlights with no fewer than 84 tiny but bright ‘globes’ with numerous party tricks such as blocking out light shone on a reflective road sign so it does not dazzle the driver.

We are guessing that one of the first technologies that new E-Class owners will show off to their mates is the automatic lane changing.

In a quick spin along Melbourne’s busy-but-moving Monash Freeway, we put the trick to the test by clicking the indicator stalk and letting the car do the rest.

Radar sensors on the front, rear and sides of the car check to make sure the way is clear – including watching for any fast-approaching vehicle from behind or slow-moving vehicle up ahead – and then, as if by unseen hand, the steering wheel turns, guiding the car into the next lane and smoothly straightening up.

If another car is in the blind spot, it will not do it, instead issuing a judgemental squawk to let the driver know.

The automated parking system can alert the driver to available spots, and then, with the press of a console button, can park parallel or perpendicular to the kerb, in the latter case nose in or nose out. If it is a tight space, the system can even take a couple of bites to make it comfortably into the space, just like a human driver.

Best of all, it can even reverse out of the space automatically, using cross traffic alert sensors to pick a safe time.

The twin cameras behind the top of the windscreen work with the radar unit in the grille to fulfil multiple functions, from helping to steer around bends, lock on to vehicles ahead in the adaptive cruise mode and – most importantly of all – help to avoid or at least minimise collisions.

The software behind the cameras is loaded with 10,000 images and algorithms so the vehicle can identify the difference between a human pedestrian and something else.

The idea is that the car will brake and assist the driver to safely swerve around a kid chasing a ball, but not the ball, under the banner of Evasive Steering Assist.

Unfortunately for animals such as kangaroos or wombats, the device is uncaring about them, presumably because the risk of a hard-braking swerve is greater to the car’s occupants than running over the animal and damaging the car.

The steering assist system – now called Steering Pilot – that previously relied on the roadside white lines for guidance has been upgraded to take into account roadside guards, guide posts and other markers for assistance on roads where white lines do not exist.

If in adaptive cruise control mode and locked on to the back of another vehicle, it will also follow that car if necessary.

However, when we tested it at Sandown raceway, the system did not always reliably follow the roadside markings, so perhaps it is a good thing that the system requires the driver’s hands on the wheel at all times.

In fact, if the driver’s hands leave the wheel at any stage, the car will first give some warnings and then come to a stop automatically, presuming the driver has had a medical problem.

Another steering safety function on all E-Class variants is Crosswind Assist, which subtly uses the ESC system to brake various wheels to keep the car on course in a gale.

In the event of an impending side collision, the side bolster of the front seat protrudes a split second before impact, pushing the occupant about 50mm towards the centre of the car. It might not sound like much, but Mercedes says this can be a life-or-death move.

But the technology that takes the cake is Pre-Safe Sound – a technology to prevent hearing damage in a collision. According to Benz, the noise of the impact and airbags going off can, if particularly bad, damage the sensitive inner works of the ear.

The Mercedes solution is ridiculously simple – a short broadcast of “white noise” through the stereo speakers just before impact. This apparently is all it takes to condition a tiny muscle in the inner ear and thus reduce the likelihood of damage that might range from a temporary ringing in the ears to permanent tinnitus.

The only catch is that the infotainment head unit needs to be on, because the system does not have time to power it up before impact.

The first three E-Class variants to arrive in Australia this month are the petrol E200, the diesel E220d and the diesel E350d.

Next up will be the E300 and E400 4Matic, followed by the plug-in hybrid E350e either at the end of this year or early next. The performance-leading Mercedes-AMG E43 comes in January, while the Estate range is set for release later in 2017.

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