With the introduction of Drive Pilot, Mercedes-Benz is the first automaker to certify an SAE Level 3 system for the American market.  -  Photo: Mercedes-Benz

With the introduction of Drive Pilot, Mercedes-Benz is the first automaker to certify an SAE Level 3 system for the American market.

Photo: Mercedes-Benz

The path to bringing autonomous technologies to market today just got more interesting. Mercedes-Benz is the world's first automotive company to bring SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving to the U.S. with its Drive Pilot system, according to the automaker. Moreover, Nevada is the first state to confirm the compliance of the system with state regulations.

Simply put, the Drive Pilot system is the first and only SAE Level 3 system in a standard-production vehicle authorized for use on U.S. public freeways. Drive Pilot will be available in the U.S. market as an option for model year 2024 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS Sedan models, with the first cars delivered to customers in the second half of 2023.  

It’s important to understand the definition of SAE Level 3. As the automaker puts it, SAE Level 3 means the automated driving function takes over certain driving tasks. However, a driver is still required. The driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times when prompted to intervene by the vehicle.

Complying with the requirements of Nevada Chapter 482A for Autonomous Vehicles, Drive Pilot will allow the driver to hand over the dynamic driving task to the vehicle under certain conditions. Mercedes-Benz hopes to expand to California later this year with the certification documents already filed with state authorities.

It should be noted that the Drive Pilot system only works up to speeds of 40 mph and under specific circumstances — like on suitable freeway sections and where there is high traffic density.

Here’s how it works. When the driver activates Drive Pilot, the system controls the speed and distance, and guides the vehicle within its lane. The route profile, events occurring on the route, and traffic signs are correspondingly taken into consideration. The system also reacts to unexpected traffic situations and handles them independently, for example, with evasive maneuvers within the lane or by braking.

So while the driver is still behind the wheel — and may be prompted to take over control at any time — he or she could engage in other activities while Drive Pilot is in effect. In short, it’s easy to imagine drivers eating, texting, or even grooming behind the wheel if they become too reliant on Drive Pilot.

Safety First

The manufacturer says safety is its top priority as it introduces Drive Pilot. To that end, the system includes both LiDar sensors and redundant systems.

There is also a camera in the rear window and microphones for detecting emergency vehicles, as well as a road wetness sensor in the wheel well. A vehicle equipped with the optional Drive Pilot system also has redundant steering and braking actuators and a redundant on-board electrical system, so that it remains maneuverable even if one of these systems fails and a safe handover to the driver can be ensured.

Finally, if the driver fails to take back control even after increasingly urgent prompting, perhaps due to a severe health problem, the system brakes the vehicle to a standstill in a controlled manner while engaging the hazard warning lights. The Mercedes-Benz emergency call system is then activated, and the doors are unlocked to make the interior accessible for first responders.

Drive Pilot also includes a high-precision positioning system that is much more powerful than conventional GPS systems. In addition to the anonymized data collected by LiDAR, camera, radar and ultrasound sensors, a digital HD map provides a three-dimensional image of the road and the surroundings with information on road geometry, route characteristics, traffic signs, and special traffic events (e.g. accidents or road works). This is made available and updated via a backend connection.

While Mercedes-Benz is first out the gate for SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving, the industry continues to roll out new advanced driver technologies.

Experts continue to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of these systems. Recently, Consumer Reports named Ford’s BlueCruise — a hands-free system — the best driver assistance system. The system can allow for hands-free driving on sections of premapped divided highways, automating the vehicle’s steering, acceleration, and braking for the driver.  General Motors’ Super Cruise system — the winner in 2020, the last time CR conducted these tests — took second place. Tesla’s Autopilot fell from second place to seventh.