It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in Los Angeles, and I am hunting for traffic.
That’s right, I’m trying to actually find a jam on the freeway, not avoid one. Because I’m riding in the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class which comes with the most advanced level of its “Driver Assist” technology, and I want to see what this extremely smart and luxurious car can do.
After traveling east on the I-10 Freeway, we exit at Crenshaw Blvd., only to get right back on the freeway going west. We know we’ll start to see some tail lights soon, thanks to the curve at an upcoming exit that always, no matter what, causes a slowdown. Sure enough, we come to a crawl within minutes.
At that point, my driver — a Mercedes autonomous driving engineer named Lucas — shows me that he has gotten a prompt on his dashboard, offering to switch to “Drive Pilot” mode. He accepts with a push of the button on his steering wheel, which means the car has officially taken over. A light on the wheel turns aqua, and I can see his feet aren’t on the pedals, despite the fact that we are certainly in stop-and-go traffic. Lucas keeps only a light touch with his left hand on the steering wheel (since the vehicle is still in the “testing” phase, so truly hands free is not legal, yet). But really he’s using his right hand to select a massage for both of us: He picks “Deep waves,” and our plush seats spring into kneading and vibrating action. It’s safe to say I forgot about the traffic.
Currently, all legal autonomous driving vehicles require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, even when they’re using AI features like automatic lane changes or brake assist. This is called “Level 2” autonomous driving. But Mercedes’ not-yet-legal-to-be-sold in-America AI lets drivers take their hands off the wheel, and focus on something other than the road entirely, like the center console which lets users browse the web, watch YouTube, check email, and yes, even select a massage.
This is called “Level 3” autonomous driving, which means the car is the true pilot of the car — but only under very specific conditions. The conditions a Mercedes car has to meet in order to activate this automation is that the car has to be on a freeway, and be going under 40 mph. That is, it has to be stuck in freeway traffic.
I was able to see this type of automation in action because Mercedes has permission to test it on California roads from the California DMV. But in Germany, the tech has already passed its trial run: At the end of last year, Mercedes-Benz became the first automaker to get legal approval for this type of robo-car (that is, one with “Level 3” autonomous driving). As for the U.S., Mercedes says it is working with the American states of California and Nevada to gain approval, which it hopes to get by the end of 2022, with its cars hitting U.S. roads in 2023. Daumen drücken!*
(*Fingers crossed, in German, obviously.)
The international adaptation has proved somewhat tricky. Germany has road rules (that people actually follow) for everything from the setup of a construction zone to lane changes. But needless to say, things aren’t quite so rigid in America.
“This makes life not easy,” Georges Massing, one of Mercedes’ heads of autonomous driving systems, said.
But the automaker has tricked out its S-Class, as well as its all-electric EQE, with three types radar, lidar, and computer vision sensors that act as a car’s eyes and ears. In addition to the car’s computer, it’s connected to a network where it can access real-time information about roads and traffic conditions.
Speaking of traffic, things seem to be speeding up on the I-10. A gap begins to grow between us and the car in front, but the Mercedes reacts. Lucas gets vibrations and audio cues, and the screen says that it’s time to take the car out of Drive Pilot mode. My human driver takes back the reins, and we begin cruising back to Santa Monica.
Though fully enjoyable, I remarked to Lucas that the ride — my first in an autonomous vehicle of any kind — felt totally ordinary.
“That’s the goal,” Lucas said. “[To be] so safe that it’s boring.”
Contrary to what many headlines about autonomous driving might lead people to believe, safety seems like a big selling point for this use of AI in particular. It’s common while stuck in freeway traffic to look over and see people playing on their phones and even watching Netflix. Essentially, people are already not paying attention to the road when they’re in a jam, because the experience is so boring and excruciating and doesn’t really require full use of your faculties. So if a car can manage the stop-and-go while you zone out, that could be a safer way to manage the behavior that people are already engaging in. Theoretically, at least — Mercedes will have to prove that the car can do what they say it does to American authorities first.
As we’re waiting at an intersection once we’ve gotten off the freeway, an autonomous delivery cart rolls on by through the crosswalk. We roar with laughter, because this robot-on-robot interaction just seems too perfect.
In retrospect, I wonder if this is what a safe, convenient future really looks like — or if it’s the picture companies selling AI as an integral improvement upon our current lives are trying to paint for us.
At least fancy cars can give you a really good massage now, though.