“Please, go ahead.”
The gleaming silver spheroid resting before me on the tarmac has a pleasant, female voice. It’s friendly, almost conversational, were it not for the monotonous whirring of a strange motor in the background.
“Please, go ahead,” it says again. It’s telling me that it’s safe to cross in front of it, I believe, so I can get in on the other side. There is no sense of urgency or impatience. This machine isn’t subject to emotion, to the frightening cocktail of testosterone and adrenaline that beget the tragically human phenomenon of road rage.
Mercedes-Benz couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue to demonstrate the F 015 Luxury in Motion, a distant-future vision of what a fully autonomous car could eventually look like. We’re standing with a group of other journalists at one end of a dilapidated runway at the Alameda Naval Air Station, a vast expanse of concrete and weeds that has remained essentially unchanged since the military base’s closure in 1997. Enormous transoceanic freighters glide by in the channel a few hundred feet to the north, backdropped by the hazy silhouette of San Francisco’s skyline several miles away. MythBusters is known to film here, because you can have an explosion or a crash go horribly wrong and it doesn’t really matter. It’s basically a scene from Mad Max.
If there’s a place in America where I might expect a car to wean itself off humans and start talking to them, this is it.
Before the F 015 has a chance to ask me once again, I dart in front of it. I don’t know what an autonomous car sounds like when it gets frustrated with a pedestrian, but I don’t care to find out.
Mercedes debuted the F 015 not at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January, but at CES the week prior. That is to say, Mercedes announced its most exciting project in years not on the auto industry’s biggest stage, but on technology’s.
That speaks volumes about what this vehicle really is. As I chat with Vera Schmidt, a user interface designer who works out of Mercedes’ Silicon Valley R&D center, she calls the F 015 a concept car, then catches and corrects herself. "It’s a research car, not a concept car," she says. Concept cars often foreshadow an automaker’s design direction, which is always a primary topic of conversation at international auto shows; the F 015, on the other hand, is basically a rolling laboratory.
Today, most autonomous driving projects imagine a near future that’s tethered to the technological and political realities of the present: here’s a car that looks like any other car on the road, and oh, by the way, it can drive itself sometimes. With the F 015, Mercedes says that it freed itself of those constraints and just kind of went crazy. Let’s assume, just for the hell of it, that we’ve completely solved the bureaucratic nightmare that awaits us when cars drive themselves. Let’s assume that driverless cars are culturally accepted. Let’s assume that the technology is perfected and we’ve made it small enough to fit into a tiny compartment inside a regular road-going car. (Of these assumptions, that last one’s the safest.)
Google is approaching self-driving research in a similar manner, but the end goal is different: whereas Google wants to make a little box that efficiently gets you from Point A to Point B, Mercedes is still trying to make something that evokes an emotional response, just as well-designed cars do today. Basically, here’s a car company’s interpretation of a car in a post-driver world.
When you don’t have to drive, you don’t have to look away from the people you’re riding with
The F 015 doesn’t really communicate "beautiful" through its design — at least not by any present-day standard. But it definitely communicates "future." Holger Hutzenlaub, who runs Mercedes’ Advanced Design department, jokes that the F 015’s internal codename was "Led Zeppelin," noting subtle cues, like the placement of the GPS antenna hump on the roof, that help visually differentiate front from rear. (It’s not a stretch to suggest that the car looks a bit like a flightless dirigible.) He gestures to a board of sketches showing the car’s evolution over several years of internal iteration; the final concept is substantially different from the very earliest designs, but one thing remains constant: the carriage-like cabin, allowing four people to face each other. Rear suicide doors and the absence of B-pillars — the strips of metal that normally divide the front and rear passenger compartments of a car — leave a cavernous hole in each side of the F 015 for easy entrance and exit from the swiveling seats. Maybe in 20 or 30 years, this will be the defining element of an autonomous car; when you don’t have to drive, you don’t have to look away from the people you’re riding with.
Everything about the F 015 is automated, or at least gives the appearance of being automated — the car is summoned by a smartphone app, opens and closes its doors automatically, and gently urges nearby pedestrians (like me) to "please, go ahead." In reality, the car was continually being attended to by a substantial fleet of Mercedes engineers brought in from Germany and Silicon Valley, babying it as if it was made of papier mâché. Currently, the F 015 isn’t even fully autonomous — it needs arrays of beacons on the surrounding pavement to define its path.
And after each group of four went on the short, closed-course trip, there was a full inspection and a reset of the car’s internals. Several emphasized to me that the car is "sensitive," reacting poorly to rain and extreme heat. They made it sound, ironically, almost human.
The car is "sensitive," reacting poorly to rain and extreme heat
On my first trip in the F 015, I climbed in with two fellow journalists and Thomas Jäger, a concept engineer at Mercedes. Even approaching this car is a theatrical event: the LED array in the grill glows blue to indicate that it recognizes your presence, a feature designed to give pedestrians some degree of assurance that this two-ton automaton isn’t about to run you over. A high-intensity laser mounted beneath the car’s badge can project symbols onto the road, including a green crosswalk, of sorts — another sign that it’s safe to walk in front of the car. Mercedes is really playing up the F 015’s ability to be a good citizen in dense spaces filled with people, pets, other cars, and general urban chaos, hyper-aware of its surroundings. If it says "please, go ahead" and you want to respond with "no, I insist, you go ahead," you can even make a waving motion at the car and it’ll drive on by.
The interior of the car is starkly different from its exterior. From the outside, with its opaque, metallic windows, Hutzenlaub says the F 015 almost seems "mysterious" — is there anyone even driving this thing? — but the cabin is a mixture of wood, leather, polished aluminum, and giant touchscreens basically everywhere they could possibly fit. There’s a big display embedded in each of the four doors, one across the entire dashboard, another behind the rear passengers, and one more on a floor-mounted console that can automatically extend into a table. The décor is still cold, but it’s an inviting kind of cold, not a "metallic zeppelin of unknown provenance" kind of cold.
The décor is cold, but it’s an inviting kind of cold
In a traditional car, this amount of digital stimulation would be criminally distracting: gently undulating patterns move in sync across the displays, which can be manipulated to control music, take phone calls, and even see live views from the exterior cameras of nearby F 015 drivers you’ve befriended. (There’s no way this privacy nightmare would ever make it to a production vehicle, I’d wager — even in the distant future.) But when a car is in complete control of itself, the passengers need as many distractions as they can get. The display in the retractable table could have games on it, for instance, although it didn’t have any loaded yet.
Without warning or fanfare, the F 015 starts moving. The windows that look like sheets of metal from the outside are actually see-through once you’re inside, but the views seem intentionally deemphasized; there’s a sense that they’re smaller than they could have been, because the focus is on the LCD displays and the people you share the cabin with. The coating that gives the windows their metallic sheen interferes a bit, too — they’re tinted by a pattern running across them. It’s a bit like looking through a vinyl wrap. If there was something pretty outside, this wouldn’t be the car you’d want to be in. I asked Schmidt why Mercedes didn’t use windows that could be dimmed electrostatically — clear when you want to see outside, opaque when you want to take a nap and let the car do its thing. She said they’d considered it, but they’d wanted to also embed displays in the windows, and the technology simply wasn’t there yet.
Is this really the future of transportation?
But even without next-gen digital windows, the F 015 still has interactive displays everywhere, unavoidable in any line of sight. Is this really the future of transportation? Will we stop having any sense of where we are right now, turning our attention instead to work, games, reading, or the passengers around us? The notion of blocking out the outside world during a commute feels uniquely Californian to me — again, Mercedes has a lab in Silicon Valley — because the gridlock is legendary here. If you can look at a sunset or a beach or a portrait of your family instead of the bumper of the guy ahead of you, maybe you’re living a less stressful life.
Nothing about the interior was perfect, but I wasn’t expecting it to be: it’s a hodgepodge of ideas that are fleshed out just enough to test, to gauge reaction. The touchscreens were fidgety, the fit and finish weren’t great, and the car sounded really weird — a continuous drone from a fan that never changed pitch. The seats, which rotate to help you get in and out of the car, would occasionally rotate for no obvious reason. Of course, I can probably name two dozen ways this car isn’t street legal, too. As functional non-production cars go, the F 015 is minimally functional. (To its credit, Jäger tells me they’ve taken it up to 200 km/h — 124 mph — but we never get anywhere near that out here at Alameda.)
As functional non-production cars go, the F 015 is minimally functional
At some point on our lackadaisical, figure-eight trip up and down the airstrip, the car came to an abrupt halt, as if it detected something was wrong. Jäger, Secret Service-style earpiece in his ear, waited for word from the army of engineers nearby. The pause, the hush that filled the cabin, was long enough for a bit of reflection.
"The last two years, this car has been my life," he said. His English is perfectly understandable, but he suddenly apologizes profusely for it, insisting that he’s out of practice. There’s a moment where he seems to get a little emotional, frustrated by a language barrier that prevents him from fully articulating the motivations behind the project that has completely consumed him. And right then, there was this surreal feeling where four people were in this car, this teardrop-shaped transportation pod, sharing a moment. We were facing each other, surrounded by displays and a post-apocalyptic backdrop, trusting technology completely to take us to our destination. There was no concern for the car or the road. We were focused on Jäger, and he was focused on us.
After a while, he spun his chair around, deployed the telescoping steering wheel, and took manual control of the car. "You’re the only group to see this," I heard him say. He was driving a little more aggressively than the car drove itself, apologizing for the unexpected detour as we arrived back at the starting point. As far as I’m concerned, it was better to see both modes in operation: the F 015’s steering wheel isn’t just for show. One of Mercedes’ Italy-based interior designers, Till Varailhon, tells me that the company’s self-driving cars will always have steering wheels; driving manually is part of the emotional connection with a car, and you certainly can’t drive manually without a steering wheel.
I left Alameda no more convinced that I ever want a fully autonomous car in my life than when I arrived. But regardless, the F 015 definitely imparts a broader perspective for what fully autonomous driving could mean someday: it’s not just about reducing accidents and taking away control of two-ton death machines, as Elon Musk would say. You’ve got this reclaimed time that you can use, and this research car is trying to figure out how you might use it.
In recent days, Mercedes has been driving the F 015 around locations in San Francisco, letting the public get close to it, taking selfies, asking questions. As the company flashes through a slideshow of the gathered throngs, there’s clearly curiosity, if not outright interest.
Legalizing a car that disengages drivers this far from their cars will take Herculean effort spread over many years — but winning hearts and minds probably isn’t a bad place to start. It’s a 2030 concept, after all, and even that might be a little aggressive. In 15 years, we’ll know whether we’ve untangled a rat’s nest of automotive bureaucracy, whether people are okay with being shuttled around by artificial intelligence alone, and whether real cars of the future are this pleasant with hesitating pedestrians.
"Please, go ahead," I heard it say as another group got ready to approach the car. Not a hint of exasperation yet.