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Simon Bauer, a development engineer with Mercedes-Benz, sits in the driver's seat as the Level 3 driver assist feature takes control in the EQS sedan on a California highway.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

When the transport truck beside us started to move into our lane, Simon Bauer was behind the wheel of our Mercedes-Benz EQS sedan – but he wasn’t driving.

The car hit the brakes and moved out of the way – even though Bauer had his hands off the wheel and his eyes on the infotainment screen.

“So that was a good example,” said Bauer, a Mercedes development engineer who was demonstrating the company’s Drive Pilot assist technology on a Silicon Valley freeway during morning rush hour. “What the car did was an emergency reaction. So it recognized that the truck was slightly moving toward the left. That’s why we had this slight jerk.”

While other automakers’ driver assist systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot, Ford’s Blue Cruise and General Motors’ Super Cruise, aren’t fully capable of self-driving, according to regulators and the engineering association that sets standards for the auto industry, the Mercedes system lets the car completely take over for the driver – under limited circumstances.

It only works in highway driving at speeds less than 40 miles an hour (64 kilometres an hour) and only if there’s a vehicle in front of you. It’s designed for traffic jams, Bauer said.

“If you have no car in front of you, it won’t work,” he said. “As soon as you are on a highway and the circumstances are fulfilled, you can engage it.”

Drive Pilot is a Level 3 driver assist system. There are five levels of automated driving, according to SAE International, the engineering association that sets voluntary standards for the automotive and aerospace industries.

For the first three levels, a driver must be behind the wheel and ready to take over at all times.

Other systems, such as Autopilot, are Level 2 and have features including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automatic emergency braking.

They might allow the car to adjust speed, switch lanes and even stop for red lights, but they can never take over the driving.

Level 3 lets the car drive itself under “limited conditions.” In January, Mercedes became the first automaker to be allowed to operate cars equipped with Level 3 driver assist in the United States.

So far, it is only approved for use in Nevada, although Mercedes is seeking approval in California. Mercedes has permission to test the system in California. The system is not available in Canada and Mercedes did not say whether it is seeking approval.

Drive Pilot relies on sensors, including radar, Lidar – which uses lasers to identify objects and gauge their distance – and a wetness sensor to detect whether there’s water on the road. It also has cameras and microphones to detect lights and sirens from emergency vehicles.

It combines sensor data with data from satellite navigation – Mercedes said its system is more precise than conventional GPS – and a Lidar-scanned map of the road.

Then, an on-board “supercomputer” takes over the driving, Mercedes-Benz chief executive officer Ola Kaellenius told reporters at the launch of MB.OS, the company’s new operating system, in February. That means Mercedes would be responsible if Drive Pilot causes a crash.

“If the computer were to cause the accident, we would have to pick it up,” Kaellenius said.

The system – which is available in the United States on the 2024 S-Class and EQS sedans – seemed simple to use, although journalists didn’t get to try it.

When all the conditions were right, green lights on the steering wheel lit up and Bauer took his hands off the wheel.

While some Level 2 systems let you take your hands off the wheel for longer than a few seconds – GM’s Super Cruise does but Tesla’s Autopilot doesn’t – they track your eyes to make sure you’re looking at the road. That’s because the car may need you to take over instantly.

But Bauer said the Mercedes system doesn’t require you to look at the road. It will give you about 10 seconds’ warning if you have to take over – for instance, if the car in front of you isn’t close enough.

That means you can play Angry Birds, watch YouTube or a movie or take a Zoom call, Bauer said.

“My favourite, to be honest, is using the in-car office to get rid of all the redundant emails I get every day,” Bauer said.

That fits with Mercedes’ intention to turn cars into offices and home theatres. At the operating system launch, it also showed journalists the 2024 E-Class dashboard. It comes with a selfie camera, and, like the massive display on the EQS, screens from one end of the dash to the other.

Eventually, if approved by regulators, the Level 3 system could be deemed safe to use at speeds up to 130 kilometres an hour, Mercedes said, although it didn’t provide a target date.

So, how practical – and necessary – is all this? On our 20-minute freeway drive, the conditions were met for Bauer to engage the Level 3 system for maybe a minute or two at a time. He had to turn it off whenever he took an exit and at one point, it gave him a warning to take over.

Personally, I don’t know if I’d want to watch Ted Lasso for a couple of minutes at a time in slow traffic.

But maybe it would give me time to fiddle with a playlist or look for the next EV charger without worrying about hitting the car in front or driving while distracted.

That’s the point of Level 3 – it’s not meant to replace the driver, Mercedes said. It’s there to give drivers a break when stuck in traffic.

“This mainly addresses our customers who live in these huge cities like San Francisco and have to travel each and every day through a traffic jam,” Bauer said.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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