Mercedes seeks US approval for completely hands-free driving system

Mercedes-Benz is seeking regulatory approval to introduce its new Drive Pilot technology to the US market this year, the automaker’s CEO told reporters, and also hopes to launch the hands-free system in China.

Mercedes chief Ola Källenius said the company would start building cars with its Level 3 autonomous technology, Drive Pilot.

There’s an ongoing industry-wide race to bring hands-free and even completely driverless technologies to market. German regulators recently approved the use of the Mercedes system, marking the first Level 3 technology capable of operating on public roads.

Several other manufacturers, such as Tesla and General Motors, have introduced systems capable of some hands-free operation in passenger vehicles, although these are in the less capable Tier 2 category.

But even more advanced, fully driverless technology could soon be in commercial operation, with GM now seeking approval to deploy Cruise Origin ride-sharing vans in San Francisco. These shuttles would have no steering wheel or other traditional controls.

Deployment begins in Germany

Mercedes has announced that it will start rolling out Drive Pilot in the flagship S-Class sedan for sale in Germany before the middle of the year. It will follow with the all-electric EQS ​​sedan. Even before that, it is drawing up plans for a global rollout, starting with other European markets later this year and then overseas.

“We are working on the United States and are in talks with the Chinese authorities to certify such technology there,” Mercedes chief executive Ola Källenius said Thursday.

Kallenius speaking 2021
Mercedes-Benz Group CEO Ola Källenius told reporters that the company is asking the United States to approve the use of Drive Pilot.

If approved, Drive Pilot will join several other advanced driving systems already available In the U.S. Officially, Tesla’s Autopilot still requires a driver to at least maintain grip on the steering wheel, though motorists frequently refrain, especially with the latest so-called “Full Self-Driving” version. The General Motors Super Cruise actually provides hands-off operation on approximately 200,000 miles of US and Canadian roads.

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But a driver using Super Cruise is closely monitored to ensure they keep their eyes on the road and are ready to take over immediately in an emergency. Ford’s next BlueCruise will have similar capabilities and limitations. Both systems fall under what is often referred to as “Level 2+” autonomy.

Drive Pilot is the first system to reach level 3 autonomy. Drivers will be able to look away, for one thing, perhaps to check text messages. But it still has limits. Initially, German regulators only allowed it to be used at speeds of up to 37 mph and, even then, only on around 8,000 miles of the country’s roads. A driver can always be warned to take back control under certain conditions, which can include bad weather as well as urgent emergencies.

Removing the driver from the equation requires even more sophisticated technology that falls into the Tier 4 category, according to industry and regulatory guidelines.

Mercedes Drive Pilot steering wheel
Mercedes makes it easy to activate Drive Pilot and know if it works with all steering wheel controls.

Take the driver out of the equation

And that’s what GM’s Cruise subsidiary is working on. It’s already test Tier 4 technology in versions of the Chevrolet Bolt EV as part of the ride-sharing service, it operates around its headquarters in San Francisco. Until recently, these battery electric vehicles had backup drivers behind the wheel. Now some have been modified to work without a human operator.

Cruise contacted US regulators for permission to take the next step. He wants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to let him start building and deploying the toaster-shaped Origin. The all-electric shuttle won’t even have human controls, such as pedals and steering wheels.

“The submission of this petition signals that Cruise and GM are ready to build and deploy Origin, here in America,” Cruise said in a blog post.

Hourly

With government approval, the first of the four-seat shuttles will be produced later this year at GM’s Factory Zero EV plant in Detroit. The pilot operation would begin in San Francisco in early 2023.

Mercedes Drive Pilot sensors and redundancy graph

Federal motor vehicle regulations allow an automaker to obtain exemptions from current standards for up to 2,500 vehicles.

While Cruise didn’t specify how many Origin shuttles it wants to build, GM President and CEO Mary Barra noted Wednesday that the self-driving subsidiary hopes to quickly add other markets after the initial launch of the pilot service. in San Francisco.

And after?

The system Cruise is developing still has its limitations. For one thing, as Tier 4 technology, it will be “geo-fenced,” limiting the roads it can operate on, even with all the cameras, radars, and lidar sensors it uses. And operations could be restricted in bad weather.

The ultimate goal of the industry is to reach level 5. This would provide the kind of abilities so far only found in science fiction. A level 5 vehicle could operate anytime, anywhere without a driver.

But, for now, that should take a decade or more, according to most experts.

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