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Australia a key market for self-drive cars: Mercedes

On tour: Australia’s involvement as one of five countries in Mercedes’ ‘World Intelligent Tour’ points to the significant position it currently occupies as the company ramps up its autonomous car development.

Australia ‘on radar’ for Mercedes driverless car rollout as development car arrives

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Mercedes-Benz logo29 Nov 2017

MERCEDES-BENZ has identified Australia as a significant market for the ongoing development and eventual sale of high-level autonomous vehicles and expects the revolution sweeping the automotive world to come here soon after it is launched overseas early next decade.

There are major infrastructure and legislative roadblocks to be cleared – which exist in all countries – but the manager in charge of concept and field evaluation of driver assistance systems for Mercedes-Benz worldwide, Jochen Haab, believes Australia will be among the leading nations in the international rollout of self-driving cars.

He sees Germany and the United States as “flagship” countries for the German manufacturer’s high-level autonomous cars, with Australia close behind.

“Actually, with the rollout, we’re currently looking into it for Australia,” Mr Haab told GoAuto.

“We’re looking for markets where we have good infrastructure, where we have demand and the market for it, and also innovation friendliness, and there I see Australia (is) very big in my experience.

“I truly believe in the chances you have down here, in innovation in general – be it medicine or driving a car – so I see it here (autonomous car rollout) on the radar, so to speak.”

Mr Haab was in Australia this week with members of his team, driving – or rather, hardly driving – an S-Class development car from Sydney to Melbourne as part of a ‘World Intelligent Drive’ that started at the Frankfurt motor show in September and will finish at the CES in Las Vegas in January.

The drive covers five continents over five months – Europe, China, Australia/Oceania, Africa and North America – which are conveniently the ‘Olympic continents’ but, more importantly, stand as the key areas of focus for Mercedes-Benz in its current autonomous car testing and its planned rollout.

The tour serves as a rolling showcase of Mercedes’ current work in driverless cars, but the specially modified S560 engineering mule is being used at each destination to gather data on each country’s unique driving environments and feed directly into the development of Daimler’s driverless systems that will assist with its introduction in these markets.

It is adding to the data that has been collected by Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific in a similarly configured E-Class sedan, which since March has racked up more than 18,000km of real-world testing across various states.

Mr Haab said Australia had plenty in common with Europe and the US and was a significant market to assess in its own right, pointing to issues such as long-haul driving, unique traffic rules, our right-hand-drive status and the fact that this is an important market for Mercedes-Benz in terms of sales and revenue.

“From my experience – and part of this drive is to gather experience – Australia is, data-wise, like Europe,” he said.

“That’s very, very subjective but I don’t see anything I would say – looking into Sydney and looking into Melbourne – that would be totally different to Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Berlin, or LA or New York City.

“It’s a very innovation-friendly environment and country and people, plus some aspects of your driving on the other side of the road – not very high differential speeds, pretty much everybody driving pretty much the same speed on freeways.

“The mixture of anything from a hook turn in a city with very dense and complicated traffic, and then long, long, long-haul traffic.

“And of course, our intention of it is to get as much of it (data) as we can – we do drive dirt roads and rural roads with our E-Class (autonomous development car), but of course we want to show what we do and how we develop and how we validate.

“We’re not driving here three or four or five days and then saying, ‘Okay, this is Australia, this is how it works, and now we know how to design an automated car.’ That would be arrogance, and that would be wrong.”

Australia was the third leg of the ‘World Intelligent Drive’ after Germany and China, the latter using the same technology in a Chinese-market vehicle due to red tape involved in obtaining a permit for the S-Class development car.

There were no such difficulties in Australia, given Mercedes-Benz Aust/Pac went through the process with its modified E-Class.

The S-Class used on the drive is based on the regular production model about to be launched in Australia, but allows for the engineers to override self-steering and other systems and drive the car hands- and pedal-free with a much higher threshold.

The technology is classified as Level 2, which allows for partial autonomy, but the disabling of ‘hands-off’ warnings and the like enable the company to demonstrate what Level 3, which has a high degree of automation, will be like when it reaches series production in Mercedes cars in the next couple of years.

The development car is fitted with extra data-logger cameras at the front, side and rear, as well as one directed on the driver who is constantly monitoring technical information delivered by the car’s regular radar, sensor, camera and other equipment.

The car also features prototype headlights with digital light technology, which provide ultra-high-definition lighting using chips with more than a million pixels per headlamp, allowing light corridors and other images to be projected onto the road.

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