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I watched YouTube in a self-driving Mercedes and experienced the future of commuting

Tim Levin   

I watched YouTube in a self-driving Mercedes and experienced the future of commuting
  • Mercedes-Benz is launching a revolutionary self-driving feature later this year.
  • I put it to the test in Los Angeles traffic.

While rolling along in boring, bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day, I kicked back, watched some YouTube, read the news, and played a video game. I didn't even crash.

This isn't some weird brag about how reckless I am behind the wheel. All my extracurricular activities were legal and, in theory, perfectly safe. They were even encouraged. That's because although I was in the driver's seat, I wasn't actually driving. The car was.

Mercedes-Benz invited me down to Santa Monica to try out Drive Pilot, a revolutionary new feature that will soon let its customers do something US drivers have never been able to do before: Stop paying attention while their car does all the work.

The morning commute may never be the same — for those who can afford to pay up.

What is Drive Pilot?

You're probably aware of robotaxi startups offering driverless rides in cities like San Francisco, but regular people have never been able to go out and buy a self-driving car. Drive Pilot changes that — with some important caveats.

It only works at speeds up to 40 mph and only when there's another vehicle it can follow. So, basically, in traffic jams. To start, it's restricted to certain highways in California and Nevada where Mercedes has done extensive testing. It also won't activate if it's too dark, cold, or rainy out. Over time, Mercedes plans to teach Drive Pilot to function in more places and at higher speeds.

The system will be available as an add-on for Benz's fanciest four doors, the S-Class and electric EQS, starting later this year. It'll cost $2,500 for the first 12 months.

An antidote for LA traffic

Los Angeles may not have enough water or adequate pizza, but it makes up for those shortcomings by offering traffic in abundant quantities. Soon after merging onto the clogged interstate, the EQS I was given invited me to switch on Drive Pilot using buttons conveniently located at ten and two on the steering wheel. After getting its bearings for a few seconds, the car took control, and lights on the wheel illuminated in teal.

With that, the EQS assumed the role of chauffeur. Drive Pilot kept the car smack in the center of its lane, smoothly sped up and slowed down as traffic spread out and bunched up, and eagerly gave room when other drivers barged in from either side. That last bit proved definitively that the software isn't quite human.

Relieved of the responsibility of driving, I was free to explore the sedan's assortment of entertainment features — or do nothing at all. There was a web browser, a YouTube app, a trivia game, and sudoku loaded in the Benz's touchscreen, along with more available to download via a 5G connection.

But overcoming years of ingrained muscle memory took some convincing at first. The Mercedes engineer riding shotgun challenged me to a two-player shuffleboard-like game. I tried to focus on learning the rules and hopefully demolishing my opponent, but my eyes instinctively darted to the road every few seconds. As I settled in, though, Drive Pilot made sitting in traffic noticeably more pleasant.

If you're already getting excited about the prospect of a pre-work nap, allow me to disappoint you. Mercedes is particular about what you can and can't do behind the wheel.

Seatbelts must remain fastened and seat backs need to be in their upright positions, folks. A little camera behind the steering wheel tracks the driver's eyes at all times, so nodding off or turning around is off-limits. If the car senses any funny business, or if the conditions for Drive Pilot stop being met for some reason, the car will ask the driver to take over within 10 seconds.

Despite Mercedes' hopes that drivers will use apps in their cars' touchscreens to catch up on emails and the like, I think we all know exactly what people are going to do in the driver's seat: scroll their phones.

Drive Pilot doesn't care whether you text or browse Instagram, Mercedes representatives told me, but using a smartphone while driving is illegal in most states, including Nevada and California. Makes you wonder whether those laws will change as vehicles become increasingly automated.

How does Drive Pilot work?

Most modern cars offer a super-duper cruise-control system designed to eliminate some of the drudgery of highway driving. Cars equipped with features like Tesla Autopilot and General Motors Super Cruise can automatically follow lane lines while adjusting speed to match the flow of traffic.

Drive Pilot, the US' first commercially available system that doesn't require constant driver supervision, is kind of like one of those features on a heavy dose of steroids and Adderall.

To confidently make the daring leap from "you must pay attention" to "we've got this," Mercedes packed in a whole bunch of extra gizmos on top of the cameras, radar units, and ultrasonic sensors typically used. (In industry speak, Mercedes is the first in the US to transition from Level 2 to Level 3 driving automation.)

A lidar sensor embedded in the grille sees the surrounding environment in 3D. (It looks like there are two, but one's a dummy that's just there for symmetry.) Highly detailed maps, multiple satellite positioning systems, and a special antenna array (hence the hump on the car's roof) enable Drive Pilot to understand a car's position on the road with to-the-centimeter precision, Mercedes says.

A moisture sensor monitors for wet asphalt. A rear-facing camera watches for flashing lights from emergency vehicles, while interior microphones listen for sirens. If the car notices an ambulance or the like, it'll hand over control to the driver and alert other Drive Pilot cars.

To be extra safe, Mercedes included redundant steering, braking, and electrical systems. Altogether, Mercedes is taking a markedly different approach from Tesla, which thinks it can make self-driving cars that rely only on cameras and artificial intelligence.

So, is Drive Pilot useful? I think so.

Following my test drive, I spent well over an hour in slow-moving traffic trying to get across town. I arrived at my destination drained and cranky. For people subjected to that sort of treatment daily — or, tragically, twice a day — Drive Pilot could be a game changer.

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