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We put our blind faith in Mercedes-Benz’s first-of-its-kind autonomous Drive Pilot feature

Drive Pilot is a Level 3 autonomous system, meaning you can take your hands off the wheel and — more notably — your eyes off the road during certain conditions. But are we ready to give up this much control?

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A driver using Mercedes-Benz’s Level 3 Drive Pilot system
Why watch the road when you can watch Kylie Minogue’s new video instead?
Image: Daniel Golson

Typically at a first drive event for a new car, the brand has journalists experience a twisty mountain road or scenic coastal route that best shows off the car’s capabilities. But on this Thursday morning in Los Angeles, I’m getting onto the 10 freeway in Santa Monica and driving to downtown LA with the express goal of hitting as much traffic as possible.

I’ve been invited by Mercedes-Benz to experience Drive Pilot, the first (and so far only) SAE Level 3 system for conditionally automated driving that has been approved for sale in Europe and the US.

Offered on the electric EQS fastback and gas-powered S-Class sedan, Drive Pilot will initially launch in California and Nevada later this fall, the first two states that have approved the system. At up to 40mph in traffic jam situations on highways, Drive Pilot provides hands-free, eyes-off driving that allows the driver to look away from the road at something else, like a game or movie. That’s a big leap up from hands-free Level 2 systemsTesla’s Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” included — which still require the driver to be in full control, looking ahead and paying attention.

A big leap up from hands-free Level 2 systems

Drive Pilot can only be used when the operational design domain (ODD) is met, meaning the set of specific circumstances and criteria that are necessary for the system to work. There must be a vehicle in front of your car, reasonable road conditions with readable markings and lines, and clear weather and light conditions. Drive Pilot can’t be used at night or in the rain, and the headlights and wipers must be set to auto for it to work. 

It’s also only available on freeways that have been mapped by Mercedes, with GPS positioning that is precise to the centimeter and even accounts for continental drift. Drive Pilot can’t be used in construction zones, and in addition to detecting vehicles and signs, the system gets data from local agencies so the car knows when a construction zone is ahead. More than 100,000 miles have been driven and mapped in California using Drive Pilot by Mercedes engineers, and that number will continue to grow.

Crucially, Mercedes takes full legal liability when Drive Pilot is activated, though it will depend on each individual case. That is a major step forward for autonomous tech, as Level 2 systems still hold the driver responsible for anything that happens. As long as the user operates Drive Pilot as designed, Mercedes is the one responsible. The system has been available to customers for more than a year in Germany, and Mercedes says there have been zero accidents so far. 

The sensors

There are only a few visual cues to know if an EQS or S-Class is equipped with Drive Pilot. A pair of lidar sensors are found in the grille (though one is a dummy unit just to provide visual symmetry), and there’s a hump just above the rear window for the GPS antenna array. Also included and more hidden from view are a front camera for 3D image capture, long-range radar sensors up front that measure speed and distance, ultrasonic sensors that detect the car’s surroundings, a driver monitoring camera inside, and a road moisture sensor in the front wheel arch that can tell the difference between a brief wet patch or prolonged rain.

A rear-facing camera keeps an eye out for flashing lights from emergency vehicles, and internal microphones listen for emergency sirens. The car will also transmit the location of emergency vehicles to other cars using Drive Pilot in the area.

As with in aviation, there are many redundancies in place when it comes to the Drive Pilot hardware. While cameras, lidar, and radar can do many of the same things, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, so having all three is beneficial for both safety and precise functionality. Drive Pilot also has redundant braking and steering actuators and a separate onboard electrical system just in case one of them fails.

The UX

Before getting into the cars to drive, Mercedes shows us an EQS with an important visual indicator that is not yet legal: in the hopefully very near future, when Drive Pilot is active, the headlights, taillights, and side mirrors will have turquoise marking lights so other drivers know the Level 3 system is in use.

Not only is this good for other people on the road to be more aware but it’s also helpful for law enforcement and emergency services — you wouldn’t want to get pulled over by a cop that thinks you’re distracted while driving when, in fact, you’re legally watching a movie while driving. The turquoise hue was determined by the SAE, so other brands that introduce Level 3 systems in the future will use the same light color.

Activating Drive Pilot is easy. The steering wheel has a pair of identical metal inserts at 10 and 2, each featuring a hard button with the system’s logo and a slim light, and a row of lights above. When Drive Pilot becomes available, the button shows a soft white light, and all you have to do is press it. The gauge cluster then displays a message of acknowledgment that you’re turning the system on, which you have to accept by pressing the same button on the steering wheel stalk used for other cluster adjustments. All of the steering wheel lights then turn turquoise, and Drive Pilot takes over.

Unlike with regular adaptive cruise control or other Level 2 systems, the driver can’t adjust the speed or follow distance when using Drive Pilot, so you really are leaving it to its own devices. In terms of actual operation, Drive Pilot at first acts like any other hands-free Level 2 system does. Because it only works in traffic jams at slow speeds, giving up total control doesn’t feel unsettling or scary to me, as I already love using adaptive cruise control in situations like this. 

It does feel more precise and accurate in how the car stays in its lane and reacts to surrounding traffic, with fewer jerky movements and constant tiny adjustments. Drive Pilot even reacts to larger trucks or motorcycles that are lane splitting by moving slightly over in the lane without crossing the lines, and not only does it work in carpool lanes but also it can tell the difference between the carpool and FasTrak lanes and will let the driver decide which to use. 

Putting it to the test

My first order of business is to open up the YouTube app and watch Kylie Minogue’s latest music video on the EQS’s 17.7-inch central display. The car has a 5G data connection for its infotainment, so high-quality streaming is easily achieved. Mercedes also has the Zync entertainment platform available, which features more than 30 different streaming services for movies and TV shows, including live programming. Spatial audio and Dolby Atmos are included with the car’s Burmester 3D (or optional 4D in the S-Class) surround sound systems for an extremely immersive viewing experience, especially when you turn on the massaging seats and ambient lighting.

The thought of being able to watch Top Gun: Maverick while in an hour-plus-long rush hour traffic jam — something that happens to me quite often — would honestly be life-changing.

The thought of being able to watch Top Gun: Maverick while in an hour-plus-long rush hour traffic jam would honestly be life-changing

There are a number of built-in games, like Sudoku, Tetris, virtual shuffleboard, and a tile matching game featuring images of different Mercedes. Some of the games are multiplayer, and there’s also a quiz game with a mix of automotive and general trivia questions, some of which are so tough that neither I nor the three Mercedes engineers riding with me pick the correct answers.

You can also use a built-in web browser. The new E-Class is the first Mercedes to feature an integrated TikTok app in the screen, something that will be added via OTA update to other MBUX-equipped cars, and Zoom will be available, too. (The E-Class is currently the only Mercedes with an in-car selfie camera that can be used for Zoom calls, but that feature will spread to more models soon.)

Even without playing a game or watching videos, Drive Pilot makes sitting in traffic a much more enjoyable and relaxing experience. As someone who talks with their hands a lot, it’s easier to hold a conversation with other passengers, as I don’t have to worry about making prolonged eye contact and taking my attention off the road. Drive Pilot also leaves me free to admire the scenery or other vehicles on the road, write notes in a journal, or read a magazine.

Driver in the loop

If the car needs the driver to take back control, like if traffic lets up or other ODD conditions are no longer met, the warnings start off subtle but get increasingly urgent. At first, the car makes an audible chime, and the steering wheel lights turn red. Then, the warnings get louder and more frequent, the car tugs on your seatbelt, and the seat and steering wheel will vibrate.

If you still haven’t taken back control after 10 seconds, the car will come to a complete stop in its lane, turn on the hazard lights, unlock the car, and call emergency services. In order to take back control, the driver can tap the accelerator or brake pedal or just press the Drive Pilot steering wheel buttons. 

Even if you have the standard adaptive cruise control prior to activating Drive Pilot, disengaging the system goes back to full manual control, so you have to reengage adaptive cruise if you want to keep using it. That’s slightly annoying, but it’s yet another safeguard to make sure the driver knows they have to be in charge again. After the first few times Drive Pilot asks me to take back control, I get used to the warnings and react more quickly to them, and they’re basically impossible to ignore.

How it felt

I’m not one to get freaked out by driver-assist tech, and there’s not a single moment where Drive Pilot makes a mistake or reacts badly to a situation, even when surrounded by nightmarish LA drivers. The only issue I run into is my own mental problem. As I’m watching a video, I keep instinctively glancing away from the screen to scan the road ahead, my brain subconsciously trying to stop me from being distracted.

Looking away from the road while the car is in motion is a hard thing to get used to as a driver, I have to really convince myself that what I’m doing is okay. After about two hours in the car going in and out of Drive Pilot, I finally start getting comfortable with taking my attention away from driving, but I can see others having a much harder time learning to trust the computers.

Looking away from the road while the car is in motion is a hard thing to get used to as a driver

There is one big question when it comes to Drive Pilot and other Level 3 systems: are you allowed to use your cellphone while the system is active? For now, drivers have to follow local laws, so in California and Nevada, cellphone use is still prohibited. But in Germany, it’s legal to use your phone when Drive Pilot is turned on, adding another layer to the appeal. Mercedes doesn’t say whether it will start lobbying to get cellphone laws in the US adjusted for Level 3 driving, though it’s a possibility.

How to get Drive Pilot

Interestingly, the Drive Pilot hardware will be a no-cost option — just a box you can tick on the order sheet (only in California and Nevada) — but it’s not something that can be retrofitted to cars that don’t have it. The EQS and S-Class already come with all of Mercedes’ safety and driver-assist features as standard, so the brand didn’t want to charge extra for the Level 3 tech. It’s not restricted to specific models or trim levels, either, though Mercedes expects the vast majority of Drive Pilot-equipped cars to already be pretty well loaded. Drive Pilot is also available on the Maybach S-Class and AMG versions of both the EQS and S-Class, too.

In order to actually activate the Drive Pilot system, though, you’ll need to activate it via a subscription fee through the in-car Mercedes me store. Mercedes acknowledges that subscriptions for in-car features are extremely controversial, with multiple spokespeople making pointed references to one of its competitors from Munich that has recently walked back some of its subscription offerings.

Part of the reasoning is because EQS and S-Class buyers are typically very wealthy and have multiple homes, so if the owner wants to take their car to a state where Drive Pilot isn’t available, they can just cancel the subscription. At launch, the Drive Pilot subscription will cost $2,500 per year, though Mercedes will come out with different tiers of price and length in the near future.

Another reason for the subscription activation is so the customer is extremely aware of the restrictions and regulations surrounding Drive Pilot instead of just buying the car and having it immediately able to be used. Before a customer is allowed to use the system, they must watch a seven-minute-long instructional video that informs them of exactly how the system works and when it is allowed to be used. Mercedes says that its dealers and customer assistance employees will get specific Drive Pilot training, and there’s a website with an interactive map and useful information for first responders.

A legal can of worms

While Drive Pilot’s breadth of capabilities may be fairly limited for now, it’s just a taste of what will be possible in the future. Mercedes’ goal is for Drive Pilot to be usable in an expanded range of conditions and at speeds of up to 80mph, and approval in more states and countries is in the works. The brand’s upcoming MB.OS infotainment system that will be used on all of its new cars is ready for Level 3, and Luminar hardware will be offered across the lineup, including entry-level vehicles like next year’s third-generation CLA that was previewed by a concept car earlier this month. 

It’s just a taste of what will be possible in the future

Regardless of Drive Pilot’s capabilities and restrictions, the fact that Mercedes is first to market with a Level 3 system and taking full liability is a huge deal. When the current Audi A8 was first announced in 2017, it was meant to be offered with a Level 3 system called “traffic jam pilot,” but the brand canceled those plans a couple years later, citing issues with the legal framework in both the US and Europe, specifically surrounding liability and regulatory approval. BMW, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, and Volvo are all working on their own Level 3 systems, with each company having faced delays, legal snags, and other issues.

Dedicated autonomous vehicle companies like Cruise and Waymo have said they will skip over Level 3 entirely in favor of Level 4 systems, arguing that Level 3 can be too dangerous and confusing to drivers and that humans can’t be trusted to be ready or alert enough to take back control. With a Level 4 system, a car is able to drive itself in most conditions without needing any human intervention. Cruise and Waymo already have robotaxis operating on city streets in the US, with many incidents having gone viral online for blocking traffic or obstructing emergency vehicles.

But when it comes to consumer-level Level 4 autonomy, Mercedes is once again a step ahead. In partnership with Bosch, Mercedes became the first company to gain commercial approval for a Level 4 system with its Automated Valet Parking service, which launched late last year in Germany after a testing period that started in 2019. 

At the Stuttgart Airport’s APCOA parking garage, customers are able to drop off their Mercedes in a designated area at the entrance and have the car drive itself through the garage to find a parking spot. When the owner returns from their trip, they summon the car, which will drive itself back to the pick-up zone. Spots are booked in advance through the smartphone app that controls the tech, and payments are easily handled digitally. 

The automated parking tech is currently available on the EQE, EQS, E-Class, and S-Class and will be brought to additional models soon. Not only does this save the owner time but also it frees up space in parking garages — parking spots no longer need enough room for doors to open — and could also allow for automated charging, maintenance, and washing.

“The greatest luxury of all”

Take one look at Mercedes-Benz’s history, and any fears of Drive Pilot being dangerous or not ready for primetime should be assuaged. The brand stands alongside (or maybe even above) Volvo as one of the most prolific innovators of automotive safety, having pioneered features such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, collapsible steering columns, crash testing regimens, electronic stability control, passenger safety cells with crumple zones, Pre-Safe accident detection, and much more. If Mercedes engineers and lawyers are putting their full faith in Drive Pilot, then I will, too.

At the end of the instructional video, the narrator says Drive Pilot gives you back “the greatest luxury of all: time.” Cheesy as that may sound, it’s accurate. According to analytics firm Inrix, Los Angeles drivers lost an average of 95 hours sitting in traffic congestion in 2022, with average peak speeds of 31mph — well within Drive Pilot’s ODD. (The national average was 51 hours lost, with Chicago coming in first place with a whopping 155 hours lost.) 

For drivers who have rush hour commutes, or even just those who regularly hop on the freeway to hang out with friends, Drive Pilot transforms wasted time in the car into an opportunity to do much more with a lot less stress.