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Mercedes will give Tesla's Autopilot its first real competition this year

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Sorry, Elon

Mercedes-Benz

Fifteen months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk released Autopilot: a semi-autonomous technology that allow cars to drive down the highway with little-to-no steering input. It’s been refined and improved over the years and Tesla leads all automakers in self-driving tech that you can actually buy. But other automakers are ready to give the electric upstart some much-needed competition. Mercedes-Benz is first up, releasing the next generation of its Drive Pilot system this summer in the nonpareil S-Class. I tested it out this week on a twisting desert road in Nevada and, you might be surprised to learn, it’s better than Elon’s.

A Mercedes SUV picked me up in Las Vegas for an hour-long trip to the desert. A company rep apologized for the long ride, but said they couldn’t find a curvy road closer to the city. Most Nevada roads are straight and flat, something I noticed much more after they pointed it out, and the Germans needed some curves to show what Drive Pilot can do.

Drive Pilot is to the steering wheel what adaptive cruise is to stop and go pedals. Like Tesla’s Autopilot, the Mercedes system allows the driver to hand over direct control of steering and speed, while still supervising the overall operation of the car. Think of the driver as a manager in charge of employees: they’re controlling overall direction, but not micromanaging each individual operation.

A simpler version of Drive Pilot is available today in the 2017 Mercedes E-Class, and Daimler AG board member Ola Källenius told me that the new Drive Pilot can take charge of 80 percent of driving tasks, while the more primitive E-Class version can only handle a paltry 20 percent of the job.

It’s activated by pressing a button on the steering wheel and the car will maintain speed and keep within its lane. Though the driver doesn’t need to keep a hand on the wheel, it will request a driver response every 10 seconds or so, depending on current road conditions. A pair of capacitive-touch buttons on the steering wheel can be used to acknowledge the request, which starts with a visual notification and escalates to an insistent bonging if ignored.

Keep ignoring the warnings — or in the event of a medical emergency — and the car will initiate a controlled-but-determined “emergency stop” in the middle of the roadway, activating the hazard lights to warn other motorists that there’s a problem. Tesla’s system acts similarly, though the Mercedes goes a step further and contacts the Mercedes SOS service where a live agent is connected to provide assistance and contact emergency personnel, if needed.

The system adapts to how much steering force is used, which allows the driver to decide exactly how much input to give. Use a light touch and the steering assist does most of the work. Apply a firmer hand and the system seamlessly gives up control. With Tesla’s Autopilot, applying steering force results in a slightly alarming jerk of the wheel when the system disengages. Mercedes engineers told me they wanted anyone to be able to take control of the car without any difficulty, noting more than once that the driver was always in charge, no matter how much work the car was doing on their behalf.

“We put a lot of energy into making this human-machine interaction as complementary as possible,” said Tobias Mueller, a communications executive with Mercedes-Benz. “It’s not the machine versus you, but it’s you together.”

The system is also intentionally less precise than it’s capable of. With Drive Pilot in control through some sweeping turns, I noticed the car drift slightly within the lane. It wasn’t heading over the line, but it wasn’t fixed exactly in the center like one might expect a computer to do. Mercedes programmed this drift deliberately, encouraging the car to move a little bit within the lane both to improve ride comfort depending on road camber and other factors. It’s also to remind the driver that Drive Pilot is only an assist system, not fully autonomous.

“It’s actually so you don’t feel too safe,” Mueller told me. “That sounds stupid, but it’s to make you stay engaged and aware of what’s going on around you. It’s letting you know that the car is assisting you, but it’s not doing the entire job for you.”

Making the system feel less safe might seem counter-intuitive, but Mercedes wants drivers to understand exactly what Drive Pilot is doing. A number of carmakers have criticized Tesla for its Autopilot system, with a Volvo engineer even calling it a “wannabe” because he felt Autopilot gives the impression that it’s capable of handling more situations than it really is. That Mercedes has tweaked its car to make it seem less capable is a clever and calculated move to keep drivers from becoming overconfident in its abilities.

Mercedes-Benz

Last year, Tesla changed the the way Autopilot behaves when the driver is too inattentive. Now, after 15 seconds of ignoring audible and visual warnings, the car begins a “graceful abort procedure” where the music is muted, the vehicle begins to slow, and the driver is continuously requested to place their hands on the wheel. Tesla will also disable the system until the car is power cycled if the driver ignores too many requests to place their hands on the wheel. Like Tesla, Mercedes’ Drive Pilot varies on how often it requests driver interaction, depending on the road or speed of the vehicle.

Drive Pilot has some other tricks as well. Using mapping data as well as speed limit signs (even the yellow ones in America that suggest, but not require, lower speeds for sharp bends), the system can slow down for sharp corners. It gives a subtle notification to let the driver know why it’s slowing down, and the system can even take corners slightly more aggressively — at higher speeds and with quicker braking and accelerating actions — if the car is in Sport mode rather than Comfort. Tesla uses “fleet-learned roadway curvature” to know how to take corners, which is a fancy way to say “the more you use it, the smarter it gets.”

If a driver activates the turn signal ahead of a left or right turn onto a side road, Drive Pilot will slow the car enough to make the turn without the driver touching the brake at all. In this case, it’s up to the driver to physically turn the wheel (and ensure that the operation is safe), but for many turns, no pedal action will be necessary. Once the turn is complete, the car resumes the preset speed, or even slows down if it detects a lower speed limit. “You need to reengage the system a lot less because it can stay active for a lot longer time,” said Mueller.

On a multi-lane highway, the system is capable of handling lane changes when prompted by the driver. Activate the turn signal for a lane change and the car uses blind-spot monitoring and rear-facing radar to do its own checks and make sure there’s no car in the way. It’s ultimately up to the driver to ensure that the maneuver is safe to perform, but once the turn signal is on and the car sees it’s OK, it can take care of actually turning the wheel. Tesla’s Autopilot has a similar feature.

Drive Pilot can handle speeds up to 130 miles per hour (much of the Autobahn network in Mercedes’ homeland has no speed limit, after all), and the car is relying on the driver to make appropriate decisions on speed. However, the car will never automatically adjust its speed over the speed limit — it must be the driver’s decision. The car gets much of its speed limit information from its on-board maps and uses on-board cameras for verification. If the camera sees a different speed limit, whether because the mapping data was wrong or because it’s a temporary speed zone because of construction, the car can act automatically and reduce speed.

It’s also up to the driver to decide whether to activate the system in poor weather. The front radar is heated to keep snow from building up, but determining whether it’s appropriate to use is judgement call that Mercedes stays away from. Volvo’s fully autonomous system, which is a few years away from being available to consumers, will not activate if the weather is poor — but Mercedes doesn’t want to its car involved in the decision at all.

I agree with the Volvo engineer who said Tesla’s system pretended to be more capable than it was. Tesla’s Autopilot is almost too good. Because it’s competent with uncomplicated driving, it’s easy to forget that it’s totally useless when something weird happens. But weird things happen all the time, and over reliance on a relatively limited system can be disastrous.

Mercedes-Benz

Last March, I took an Autopilot-equipped Tesla on a long road trip through the Rockies, on everything from divided interstates to twisting mountain roads. It was a tale of two Autopilots. On well-marked highways, Tesla’s system was nearly flawless. But on mountain roads it was terrifying at times. The car would barrel up to sharp corners that were meant to be taken at 15 mph, only to abruptly disengage hand over control to the driver. More than once was corrective action needed to avoid an accident. But it served as a useful reminder the driver is ultimately in charge.

Because Autopilot (and Mercedes Drive Pilot) seem so capable, it’s easy to gain a false sense of security about its abilities. Tesla tells me that Autopilot has significantly improved since March, thanks to all that’s been learned from its huge fleet of vehicles, and a huge Autopilot update was released in September.

I firmly believe that other carmakers had the technology to offer functionality similar to Tesla’s Autopilot when it launched (manufacturer reps refuse to comment on the record). Audi, Cadillac, and several others have their own autopilots in the works. But, possibly because of concerns over reliability and customer misuse, these carmakers decided to hold off until they felt confident that the systems could be implemented safely.

When they’re ready, the competition will be fierce. The Drive Pilot system that I tested is nearly identical to what will be launched this summer in the new S-Class. I think it’s slightly better than Tesla’s Autopilot thanks to its ability to slow down for turns at T-intersections and roundabouts. More competition is only good news for car buyers but, with others steadily joining the race, Tesla is about to lose one of its biggest differentiators. Your move, Elon.