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Benz tips driverless production car before 2027

No hands: Mercedes is deep in development of its autonomous technology, but one key executive believes the steering wheel will remain for a long time to come.

Fully autonomous Mercedes-Benz to be on road within a decade

Mercedes-Benz logo3 Apr 2017

ONE of Mercedes Benz’s top safety executives has predicted that motorists will not require a steering wheel to drive within a decade, with fully autonomous vehicles forecast to hit the road before 2027.

Mercedes-Benz manager of validation and communication for active safety and assistance systems, Jochen Haab, said the current goal for the company was first to migrate from a ‘level two’ autonomous driving to ‘level three’ by 2020, before crossover periods to ‘level four’ and the ultimate ‘level five’ stages occur.

According to the German company, the second stage refers to more than one driving function being automated but with the driver still expected to take care of remaining dynamic tasks while the third stage can perform most tasks autonomously but can still request the driver to take control in certain conditions.

The fourth and fifth stages do not require a steering wheel at all.

“(Autonomous driving) ‘with certain conditions’ will be in the next number of years,” he told GoAuto at the national media launch of the Mercedes-AMG E43 in Melbourne last week.

“By 2020 I see in terms of level three which is highly automated under certain conditions, it could be the type of road, for example motorways with no cross traffic or bicycles, and at certain speeds.

“(Or) if you take the daily commute and were in a traffic jam, our car can see that it’s swarm behaviour and you just swim. That’s something you will see very soon but only up to level three.”

Mercedes-Benz’s most advanced vehicle, the facelifted S-Class set to debut in Australia in November, has been tagged by the company as a level two system.

Expanding to level three, Mr Haab said, would require greater autonomy more often, in a greater number of conditions and over a greater variety of roads.

Asked when a vehicle without a steering wheel could be seen on public roads, Mr Haab replied: “I think you will see the first levels of that within a decade.”“Level four and five are technically the same because there is no driver as a fallback solution, so you have to be fully autonomous no matter whether the driver is sleeping, reading a book, sitting in the back seat or not there at all,” he explained.

“You will see the first cases within a decade, but we do that in parallel – we develop level two now (with S-Class) and on the border of getting into level three you will see a mixture of level two/three cars.”

Mr Haab revealed that technically the software and hardware used in production Mercedes-Benz models were already able to drive fully autonomously at a grade four or five level, as the company proved earlier this year. But outdated legislation partly meant production models would be years away.

“We coded out the thresholds and that (E-Class) was able to do 90-degree turns, it was able to go through round-a-bouts by only decoding certain things with the standard ECU,” he said.

“It was an illegal car so (driven in Las Vegas), we had an exemption for that, it was a show car but it was a standard car.

“Above 10km/h in most countries including Australia, there is a steering regulation that says you are only allowed to do corrective steering, which is lane-keeping, not actively steering. Below 10km/h, parking, you’re allowed to steer automatically.

“So the faster you get the less yaw rate you’re allowed. (But) it’s a grey zone.”

Mr Haab stopped short of making the argument that technology is running ahead of legislation – but he insisted regulations would need to change.

“We have had some eye-openers, we do a lot of demonstrations for legislation just to show them what we do and how we do it and why we do it,” he continued.

“There’s a mind change globally because it’s not only the technology itself but also industry politics. Let’s just say a German government said, no we will do it the way we have done it all along … they would kill their own industry.

“We in field validation are sometimes a pain in the neck for developers because we are the second pair of eyes. The third pair of eyes is legislation, it’s important they’re there, they look at society and trends, but they can never keep track of what is going on in software technology and hardware technology.” Mr Haab also maintained that while technically fully driverless cars were feasible sooner than about 2027, ensuring that they were completely safe would still take several years.

“‘Most’ is a bad word in safety engineering,” he started.

“(Safe) most of the time? We sell two million cars. You would have a lot of jumbo (jets) falling out of the sky if you talk about ‘most’, so you have to ensure you can deal with the unforeseeable, people jumping the middle of the road, make sure you don’t encounter these situations by driving defensively.”

But he stopped short of committing Mercedes-Benz to accept liability for a crash caused by a vehicle driving fully autonomously, as rival Volvo has announced.

“We try to avoid these accidents in the first place, and we do not have that slogan so I will not say it,” he chimed.

“I’m a German not a Swedish guy. There is a bit of a race (between brands), it’s competitive, but everybody is aware of the thresholds. Our slogan is ‘the best or nothing’ but it shouldn’t be ‘all or nothing’ and I hope that will continue to be. For the sake of safety, you shouldn’t push autonomous driving only.

“It’s a matter of product ability and liability, so that will regulate itself to a certain extent.”

As for how society views the technology, Mr Haab argued around two points. He believed that even when driverless technology comes to the fore, the steering wheel itself “will be around a very long time”.

Why? “I drove the Great Ocean Road and I would not like to be in a car that drove me along, I would want to enjoy driving, but on the daily commute to Melbourne (you would want to) press a button and drive autonomously.”

For the likes of a boring commute, however, he argued fully autonomous cars also present an opportunity to “make safety sexy”.

“If I look at my kids they are 17 and 21 years old, if you tell them you can have a nice looking time but if necessary to university or to work you can check your emails, you could do Instagram, that could make autonomous driving really sexy,” he mused.

“And when they decide to do that they will have a very safe car and it will get young people to talk about safety.”

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