MERCEDES-BENZ will reveal a more advanced and easier-to-use version of its Drive Pilot autonomous car technology with the debut of the facelifted S-Class at the Shanghai motor show later this month.
And significantly, the cutting edge systems will not be reserved for the prized S-Class, but also added to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class as part of a mid-life update expected sometime in 2018. The trickle-down time for high-tech features is getting awfully short, but Benz is obviously keen to its latest driver-assistance gear on the fast track to the production line.
Benz’s most sophisticated, production-ready driver assistance programs are referred to internally as Generation 4.5, and build upon the Generation 4 systems currently seen in the W213 E-Class.
Gen 4.5 will introduce map-based autonomous throttle and brake control, speed sign recognition and improved autonomous lane changing, as well as a new interface that more clearly illustrates to drivers the car’s autonomous behaviour when the assistance functions are active.
For its Gen 4.5 system, Benz’s Distronic control stalk, currently tucked behind the steering wheel of models equipped with the tech, will be removed and its buttons relocated to the front face of the steering wheel to make them easier to access and use.
In essence, the next S-Class and C-Class will automatically control their speed based on traffic conditions and the road ahead, as well as change their set speed by reading road signage. Is it the all-singing, all-dancing autonomous driving capability that is often touted as being ‘just around the corner’? Not quite, but it’s definitely the next step toward a future of completely robotic cars.
Wheels was afforded an exclusive local preview with manager of field validation for Mercedes-Benz assistance systems, Jochen Haab. Using an otherwise standard E-Class fitted with the updated control unit, Haab demonstrated the new capabilities of the half-step generation change.
Haab says the systems greatly improve long-distance comfort, and are crucial for psychologically preparing people for future autonomy.
Active Distance Assist interprets GPS map data to autonomously brake the car to an appropriate speed for intersections, roundabouts and corners, and then return to the sign-posted speed when the road is clear.
It also uses the car’s radars to read traffic conditions and can gradually slow the car to a gentle stop when there is congestion - rather than slam on the brakes at the last moment like an AEB system. It will then creep forward or get back up to speed as traffic moves away from a standstill. This functionality works in tandem with existing autonomous steering and lane keeping systems.
Updates to the user interface within the new S-Class and C-Class will show more detailed information about speed limits, upcoming intersections and road conditions in both the main display screen and a head-up display, where fitted. Periodic map updates rolled out quarterly keep road data up to date overseas, though Benz envisages an ‘over the air’ model for immediate updates in future.
An Active Speed Limit function scans for speed signs in all environments, offering a set-and-forget assistance mode that manages speed accordingly. Gen 4.5 cars will detect signage from a distance of up to 400m, and the system will determine the difference between fixed roadside signs and speed warnings posted on the backs of trucks and buses. Cameras will also read temporary signs set up for roadworks.
Benz’s existing Lane Change Assist feature has also been upgraded from the basic version in the current E-Class to a more sophisticated system that looks at neighbouring lanes for a suitable gap when the driver flicks the indicator stalk. In fluid traffic moving at 80km/h or above, a simple tap will trigger the blinkers and completely automated lane change with steering and throttle managed by computers. If there is no gap, the blinkers will switch off while the radars continue to scan, and if space is found within 10 seconds the car will automatically reactivate the indicators and move into the lane by itself.
Alternating between drive modes will change the attitude with which the car drives itself. Eco, Comfort and Sport modes are available, alternating between maximum fuel saving, optimal luxury and more aggressive acceleration and later braking, respectively.
Hardware fitted to the future S- and C-Class models will mirror that of the current E-Class and include three multimode radars – one at the front, two at the rear – which can ‘see’ at different angles and ranges within the same sensor. Each radar assesses the situation at 100Hz (100 times per second).
Benz incorporates its forward-facing radar within a vehicle’s grille-mounted badge, whereas the rear-mounted radars are hidden behind the bumper bar and are invisible from the outside. Rearward radars scan up to 80m behind and up to 40m outwards from a car’s flanks for blind spot monitoring, while less advanced ultrasonic ‘parking’ sensors around the car’s periphery are used for short-range, low speed monitoring.
Two additional radars are fitted up front for Benz’s Pre-Safe collision system, but aren’t used for the assistance systems.