You know something big is up when the guy in charge of passenger car development for Mercedes-Benz worldwide shows up in Toronto to take a few journos for a joy ride. In this case, it’s Prof. Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the board of management of Daimler AG.
In spite of his fancy title, Weber is an engineer’s engineer. He likes nothing better than going deep into the engineering details of the latest products and answers questions like he’s defending a PhD thesis rather than spitting out PR sound bites.
He came to town to participate in the global media launch of the Mercedes flagship, the new S-Class. This is the mighty sedan that ferries around German chancellors, bank presidents or anyone who can write a large cheque.
The latest member of the $110,000-and-up line comes out in the fall. It is a car that can drive itself – but is not allowed to. With Weber behind the wheel, we took the Rosedale Valley Road over to a busy-but-moving Don Valley Parkway and zipped north.
I commented glibly, “You could make this car drive itself and sell it today if it weren’t for the liability lawyers.”
He replied seriously, “This discussion you cannot have independent of the legal framework. But our key message is yes. Autonomous driving will start with the new S-Class. All the hardware systems on board, for example radar-based distronic systems, short, medium and long range radar and a stereo camera mounted above the windshield. With these two systems we now are able to give the car the function of autonomous driving.”
“But not now,” I said.
Weber replied, “We equipped the S-Class for customers in Silicon Valley, China and Europe who say they have terrible traffic from home to office and say it would be really helpful if somebody controls the situation for them. For example, now I am discussing with you and I can concentrate on you.”
At this point, we’re doing the limit in traffic and Weber takes his hands off the steering wheel and continues to look at me not the road. The car stays in its lane while steering itself and following the car ahead at a consistent distance. “You see the car follows the car ahead of us. We are controlled by distronics and the stereo camera is checking to see that everything is okay. We call it Stop and Go Pilot. It’s a comfort system. It assists you. The system checks critical situations and helps you. If necessary, the car stops automatically.”
To make sure you don’t get lazy and rely on the system too much while filing your nails or checking e-mails, the system gives you 10 seconds maximum hands free. A light on the dash flashes after a couple of seconds, then a tone starts ringing and, if you still haven’t taken the wheel, it slows you right down.
“The idea is not to give the customer the feeling that they do not have to pay attention because that is not our philosophy. Nevertheless, you have a comfortable feeling that someone is behind the curtain helping you to manage the situation.”
All the major manufacturers are working on autonomous driving systems with similar functionality. I have driven Volvos and Nissans with excellent capabilities. The ability of the stereo camera to see and process images of things rapidly approaching from the sides – whether a pedestrian or a moose – is particularly helpful. The system will hit the brakes if you don’t and many a crash can be avoided.
The Mercedes system can also tell the difference between the pedestrian and the moose. If it’s a pedestrian, as it hits the brakes, it sends a spotlight’s highest beam at the person to hopefully make him or her stop, too. If it’s a moose, deer, dog or whatever, it recognizes the shape and still hits the brakes but avoids the beam so as not to startle the animal, which might charge the light. It gets complicated.
“So whose fault is it if there is an accident?” I asked. “Who gets sued? The software, the radar, the stereo camera or Mercedes-Benz?”
Replied Weber: “All these topics we have to clarify in detail with the regulators. It is definitely clear when it comes to these autonomous situations we have to integrate some additional checking systems so that we can show after an accident what really happened. An airplane uses a black box, which always checks the key figures.”
So autonomous driving is here, but it’s not legal yet. But soon you’ll be driving assisted by “someone behind the curtain” and a little black box recording everything either one of you does.