Fifteen months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk released Autopilot: a semi-autonomous technology that allow cars to drive down the highway with little-to-no steering input. It’s been refined and improved over the years and Tesla leads all automakers in self-driving tech that you can actually buy. But other automakers are ready to give the electric upstart some much-needed competition. Mercedes-Benz is first up, releasing the next generation of its Drive Pilot system this summer in the nonpareil S-Class. I tested it out this week on a twisting desert road in Nevada and, you might be surprised to learn, it’s better than Elon’s.
A Mercedes SUV picked me up in Las Vegas for an hour-long trip to the desert. A company rep apologized for the long ride, but said they couldn’t find a curvy road closer to the city. Most Nevada roads are straight and flat, something I noticed much more after they pointed it out, and the Germans needed some curves to show what Drive Pilot can do.
THE CAR DOES 80 PERCENT OF THE DRIVING.
Drive Pilot is to the steering wheel what adaptive cruise is to stop and go pedals. Like Tesla’s Autopilot, the Mercedes system allows the driver to hand over direct control of steering and speed, while still supervising the overall operation of the car. Think of the driver as a manager in charge of employees: they’re controlling overall direction, but not micromanaging each individual operation.
A simpler version of Drive Pilot is available today in the 2017 Mercedes E-Class, and Daimler AG board member Ola Källenius told me that the new Drive Pilot can take charge of 80 percent of driving tasks, while the more primitive E-Class version can only handle a paltry 20 percent of the job.
It’s activated by pressing a button on the steering wheel and the car will maintain speed and keep within its lane. Though the driver doesn’t need to keep a hand on the wheel, it will request a driver response every 10 seconds or so, depending on current road conditions. A pair of capacitive-touch buttons on the steering wheel can be used to acknowledge the request, which starts with a visual notification and escalates to an insistent bonging if ignored.
Keep ignoring the warnings — or in the event of a medical emergency — and the car will initiate a controlled-but-determined “emergency stop” in the middle of the roadway, activating the hazard lights to warn other motorists that there’s a problem. Tesla’s system acts similarly, though the Mercedes goes a step further and contacts the Mercedes SOS service where a live agent is connected to provide assistance and contact emergency personnel, if needed.