Mercedes Beats Tesla to Hands-Free Driving

Mercedes Beats Tesla to Hands-Free Driving
Photo: Bart Maat, Getty Images

One of the world’s leading luxury car brands just won regulatory approval from the German government to operate a hands-free, autonomous driving system on public roads, a feat that marks a significant stepping stone along the long, and so far winding road toward self-driving cars. That car company was not Tesla. Rather, the achievement actually went to Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz.

With the approval, Mercedes can sell its autonomous drive package, called Drive Pilot, to be used on parts of Germany’s Autobahn network at a max speed of 60 km per hour. That might not exactly sound like the Hollywood version of glitzy autonomous transit the industry promised, but hey, it’s a start.

Importantly, the approval would designate the Mercedez system as capable of Level 3 autonomy which, among other things, means drivers can use the system without keeping their hands on the wheels. That’s significantly different from Tesla’s more well-known Level 2 systems which still require hands on the steering wheel and the driver’s eyes looking towards the road (though there’s no shortage of drivers playing it loose with these guidelines already).

In a statement, Daimler said customers will be able to purchase an S-Class Mercedes equipped with its Drive Pilot system as early as the first half of 2022.

“With this LiDAR based system, we have developed an innovative technology for our vehicles that offers customers a unique, luxurious driving experience and gives them what matters most: time,” Mercedes-Benz AG, Chief Technology Officer Markus Schäfer said. In addition to navigating through bumper-to-bumper traffic, the company claims its system can react to unexpected traffic situations and engage in “evasive manoeuvres” when necessary.

Though the news is undeniably significant, Mercedes is also dressing it up a bit. For starters, Level 3 autonomous vehicles still require drivers to be prepared to take over the wheel when necessary. Then there’s the speed limit condition, which significantly dampens the amount of time any driver may meaningfully spend using this system, particularly on a major highway. Still, the future of brief rush hour Zoom calls is indeed upon us!

What the Mercedes designation will do is add insult to injury for Tesla, which had already drawn the ire of a German court, which in 2020 claimed the company’s use of the word “autopilot” for its driver assistance program was “misleading.” Lawmakers in the U.S. are trying to rally regulators to investigate Tesla over similar concerns related to Autopilot’s effectiveness.

In a broader sense though, it’s bad news for Tesla that the company supposedly leading the automotive industry into the future is lagging behind one of the oldest car makers in the industry’s 136-year history when it comes to AVs. That’s despite CEO Elon Musk once boldly proclaiming Tesla could have around a million robotaxis in operation by the end of 2020. For those keeping score, that number currently stands at zero.

Tesla has made the promise of near-future fully autonomous driving the lynchpin of its long-term company vision. It’s that vision, in which scores of autonomous Tesla Taxis roam city streets with passengers streaming Netflix or ploughing through the latest patched version of Cyberpunk 2077, that likely played some part in the company’s recent $US1 (A$1.4) trillion valuation. But Tesla’s definitely not there yet, and realistically neither are any other major carmakers.

This is the part of the article where we try to pump the brakes on the autonomous vehicle industry’s over-promises. Despite calling its most recent driver assistance feature “Full Self Driving,” Tesla’s most advanced cars on the roads are actually only capable of achieving Level 2 autonomy on a six-level scale. Experts generally agree Level 4 autonomy will be needed for passengers to sit back and kick their feet up without having to worry about suddenly taking over control of the car. A handful of companies, like Waymo, Argo AI, Amazon-backed Zoom, and GM subsidiary Cruise, are racing to make Level 4 driverless cars a reality within the next few years, but those timelines are optimistic at best.

Research firm IDC estimates somewhere around 850,000 of these vehicles between Level 3 and 5 could make their way to actual streets worldwide by 2024. That’s not nothing, but it’s still just a minuscule fraction of all available cars, and will likely come with a premium price tag for some time. That same IDC report shows huge growth in Level 1 and Level 2 autonomy in recent years, but that at best gets drivers the type of “autonomy” they currently experience in a FSD-equipped Tesla.