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Auto Buzz: Benz’s hands (and feet)-off approach to driving

Thomas Weber and the S-Class sedan.

Michael Bettencourt/The Globe and Mail

The upcoming new-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class could allow full hands and feet-off driving, eventually, said a Mercedes-Benz bigwig – if global lawmakers will allow it.

"Our goal is to offer full autonomous driving during the life of the current (2014) S-Class," said Thomas Weber, a board member for Mercedes-Benz research and development, in Toronto this week, where Mercedes-Benz is hosting international media previews of the 2014 S-Class for the first three weeks of July. The top-line Mercedes-Benz full-size sedan is scheduled to arrive in Canada this fall, in both regular and long wheelbase versions, and each generation typically lasts about eight or nine years on the market.

Weber's goal, if realized, would put an autonomous version of the S-Class he demonstrated to me in a 45-minute drive around downtown Toronto, on the road by 2021. British magazine Auto Express speculated that it could come as early as the S-Class mid-cycle refresh in 2017, although that time frame seems unlikely in safety-conscious and rules-heavy North America, where safety and convenience technologies (such as spotlighting headlights, front DVD) are often delayed or don't come at all, thanks to the fear of American lawsuits or the U.S. government's notoriously long law-making process.

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Weber says Mercedes-Benz has the technology to implement it now, but global regulations that standardize how a passenger car is steered – for example, with a steering wheel – still don't allow it on public roads. He said Google's jump into this research area has helped to make it a priority for lawmakers and auto makers alike, and Benz is working with the online powerhouse to integrate its mapping software into the car's navigation system.

As such, global rules are adopted and autonomous systems allowed by local transportation laws, Weber aims to make increasingly advanced self-driving systems available to S-Class owners through software updates, either at the dealership or potentially over a WiFi network.

"The S-Class is the spearhead of our autonomous drive function (Intelligent Drive)," said Weber from behind its polished wood steering wheel, sweeping his hand across a digital "gauge" cluster and centre screen that are all electronically customizable.

And while the Night View function was a key part of the system that is only available on the S-Class, the ability to stop, start and steer itself on gentle curves in both traffic and at higher speeds will also come this year to the '14 E-Class, as well as the new generation C-Class scheduled to arrive next year.

Its current capabilities were enough to stop the car using the optional Intelligent Drive's radar-cruise and camera-guided Steer Assist system, with an interesting taillight warning flash from the S-Class up ahead when we came up quickly behind it. But that slight steering assist wasn't enough to keep the car in its lane on the curvy Don Valley Parkway, where it gave a visual and then an audible warning to after 10 seconds for Weber to put his hands back on the wheel. At less than 60 km/h, the system can handle relatively straight steering for a few minutes at a time, he said, especially in heavy traffic.

Mazda3 hatchback unveiled digitally on Xbox

Mazda introduced its new 2014 Mazda3 hatchback to the world on June 26 with five simultaneous launch events in five cities, and the first-ever online reveal of a car on Xbox Live, which streamed a live performance by Metric as part of the event from New York.

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Formerly a close rival to the Honda Civic for best-selling car in the country and still in the top five, the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback will continue to offer two four-cylinder gas engines, a 2.0-litre and a 2.5, both using Mazda's efficient SkyActiv technologies.

It will compete with a similarly new Toyota Corolla when both new generation versions arrive this fall, though Toyota looks likely to drop the hatchback Matrix sooner rather than later. The tall five-door that was previously called the Corolla Matrix won't be sold in the United States as of September, and will continue to be sold only in its current form here.

GM, Honda to link up on fuel cell vehicles

Honda and GM announced this week that they will collaborate on new generation fuel cell technologies, with the aim of coming to market with the zero-emission vehicles around 2020.

The group expects the co-development deal will help both companies bring fuel cells to market at lower cost and quicker, with Honda confirming that it will go ahead with plans to market a successor to its limited volume (fewer than 100 unit) FCX Clarity hatchback in the U.S. and Japan in 2015. GM hasn't announced its plans for its own production fuel cell yet, but has long studied fuel cell technology, with a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered prototypes, the largest in the business, it says.

Critically, the two companies will also work together to advance the availability of compressed hydrogen, which can refuel fuel cell cars in the same amount of time as gas ones, with similar range, while emitting only water vapour after transforming the hydrogen to electricity to power the car.

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North American Concept Vehicle award handed out

The Hyundai's HCD-14 Genesis concept was voted the Most Significant Concept Vehicle of the 2013 auto show season, it was announced this week, after it beat out the Ford Atlas concept pickup and BMW i8 Spyder.

More than two dozen jurors from across North America judged 23 concept vehicles introduced this past auto show season from the international shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and New York.

Speaking of awards, it has come to my attention that, even after previewing the finalists to the World Car of the Year awards in various categories, I never published the actual winners, announced earlier this year.

The Volkswagen Golf won the overall 2013 World Car of the Year award, after it also won the 2012 trophy for its impressive up! line of subcompacts. The Porsche Boxster and Cayman were announced as joint winners of the World Sports Car award, beating out the contrasting finalists of the Toyo-baru twins (Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ) as well as the exotic Ferrari F12.

The futuristic and all-electric Tesla Model S was declared the World Green Car for 2013, while the sexy Jaguar F-Type two-seater was honoured as the World Car Design of the Year for 2013. The Jag beat out fine-looking finalists too, in the Aston Martin Vanquish and the Mazda6.

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