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Mercedes maps out driverless future

Selfie shtick: Mercedes and rivals are on two development paths for autonomous cars, with Level 3 functionality the next step for various models while fully autonomous Level 4/5 versions for select markets are close behind.

High-level autonomy for next Mercedes S-Class as fully driverless program ramps up

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Mercedes-Benz logo29 Nov 2017

By TERRY MARTIN

MERCEDES-BENZ is preparing to move to Level 3 autonomy with its new-generation S-Class due in 2020 and is confident the technology will be at the forefront of the industry, despite competitors such as Audi already bringing this high level of automation to market.

According to the head of concept and field evaluation of driver assistance systems for Mercedes worldwide, Jochen Haab, the Stuttgart-based car-maker is also preparing to introduce higher-level functionality such as road edge detection “very soon” and is on track to introduce a fully automated (Level 4) and driverless (Level 5) vehicle by the end of 2020, which is a separate development stream.

In Australia this week to demonstrate Mercedes’ work in this area with a specially modified S-Class development car, Mr Haab confirmed to GoAuto that the next-generation S-Class would offer Level 3 autonomy – which requires only minimal driver intervention – “under certain conditions”.

“But you will be able to drive that very same S-Class as a Level 2 system when you’re not in the circumstance that allow you Level 3,” he said.

“Clear statement: If you have a Level 3 car, very, very often you will not be able to drive at Level 3 at the beginning. But it’s not all or nothing. Then you just fall back to Level 2 and you drive like this (current-generation) S-Class, but you have to make very sure that if you sit in that car you don’t think, ‘This car drives Level 3 on that curvy road’ – when it doesn’t.

“That’s a very big part of what my team does – is to make sure that all concepts we have – user interfaces, driving behaviour, warning concepts and of course system interaction and reaction in the first place – is avoiding ‘mode confusion’.

“The big thing is, the driver always has to know which mode she or he is in. It’s all about information, and how do you make sure that they know when to take over and what their responsibility is.”

Mercedes’ current “intelligent drive” systems, which include hands- and feet-free operation for limited periods in strict circumstances, are limited by a reliance on road markings and roadside infrastructure.

However, Mr Haab said road edge detection software would be introduced soon.

“That’s not far away,” he said. “It’s all about road edge detection. At the moment, we need a distinct corner, but radar capability will be there very soon to detect the density change between concrete and, let’s say, grass.

“Right now, we need a guard rail (or similar). The radar can see the guard rail, it can see guard posts. But if it’s blurry, it’s a little bit of a problem – but we’ll get there.”

Asked about Audi’s move to introduce its new-generation A8 with Level 3 functionality (with laser-scanning hardware that allows full autonomy at low speeds) – something no country in the world currently permits – Mr Haab told GoAuto that Mercedes was watching its competitors closely but did not see them as a threat.

“Of course, we saw that with interest,” he said. “We’re working on similar concepts of how to deal with certain situations and it’s a fair competition.

“I don’t see the Audi A8 as a threat to the S-Class in many aspects. I see it as an interesting concept. I’m not a controller, but it’s interesting concept to invest in something that you’re not sure you can use anywhere at the moment – or in very limited markets.

“We see somewhat similar (concepts) with Tesla, and maybe we’ll go into some modular things as well.”

Mr Haab was unapologetic about taking a more conservative approach to rolling out driverless technology in the race to introduce higher-level autonomous cars compared to some of its competitors.

“I would call it ‘conservative’ in a good sense,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it easy but it’s possible to do as much as you can on one leg, so to speak – the autonomous leg – and ignoring aspects of your second leg, but then you will start to limp.

“If you put everything you can on the autonomous side and ignore the risks next to it, that’s not the approach that Daimler will take, out of tradition. Safety is our core value.

“We feel like it’s a marathon – it’s not a track race. And sometimes in a marathon, it’s not the ones that start out running crazy in the first 100m who will be the ones that finish. We feel quite confident in our numbers.”

This applies to both Level 3 cars and the Level 4/5 cars currently in parallel development, the latter designed to operate without driver assistance and which will initially be confined to tightly controlled environments in select markets.

Daimler, which has more than 1000 people working on autonomous systems and has a mammoth R&D budget of €6-7 billion ($A9-11b) next year, joined forces with Bosch earlier this year and committed to offering a fully driverless production-ready car (Level 4/5) by the beginning of next decade.

Mr Haab said the program had stepped up a notch since Bosch came on board.

Asked whether the vehicle in question would be one-off or series production, he told us: “It might be something in between.

“It will be on the basis of a series production car but we will have to check legislation up to then – we won’t put that one driverless car into series production not knowing if we’re allowed to do so then. So it will be part of the development of a model range.

“We’re looking at 2021 for the first markets and very specific situations.”

As to whether it would be the S-Class, he said: “I know, but I’m not allowed to tell you that!“If you look at it now, technologically-wise, let’s step one year back, from the C- to the S-Class, including all the SUVs, we have the same technology in the car. So that’s a matter of rollout, and typically E- and S-Class, I would put it to that, plus SUVs depending on the timeframe.”

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