Tag Archives: autonomous driving

Ethernovia wallpaper

Meet Ethernovia, the tech company simplifying your car’s brain for the future of safer driving

Cars are hard. Computing can be harder. Yeah, I get it. And it doesn’t help when the central nervous system of your car, the brains and all its connected gizmos and wiring, are as complex as they’ve ever been. But easy, now. There exist tech companies out there that still do what a successful (and likable) company does: provide solutions and alternatives to problems. Actual problems. Ones they didn’t fabricate or exaggerate Twitter clout. I had a chance to chat with one particular company’s representatives at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, and now it’s time for you to get to know the company, too. Meet Ethernovia, the award-winning, San Jose-based tech company poising itself to tackle issues the car companies gave themselves.

Keep in mind that I am no super hardcore tech junkie by any means. Too much Super Street growing up rots the brain. But even so, I found myself so enamored by the efforts of this company, and I wish nothing more than to share my learnings and their mission statement with you.

Solving issues the automakers created

Ramin-Motortrend-Award Ethernovia
Image credit: Ethernovia

As I waited to meet with a rep outside some random booth on the CES floor, my face sweaty from meandering around all day and donning nothing but jeans and a loose t-shirt, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I never saw anyone’s faces prior to this, nor did I have a real clear understanding of what exactly this company is or what they do. A rep, who I later learned was an Acceleramota fan, simply liked our work and wanted to connect to help share their mission.

And what a mission, indeed. Well, if you’re the techy kind that enjoys problem-solving, and God knows the auto industry could use some extra wisdom. Thankfully, Ethernovia and other companies like it are here to impart that wisdom to the glacially evolving auto industry, with the goal of simplifying their electrical and processing systems while maximizing performance in the name of improved safety and lower production costs.

Think of Ethernovia as a sort of automotive neurologist.

As I’m sure you’ve seen, cars are complicated. Over the decades, with legislation after legislation putting greater pressure on automakers to implement more safety systems and customer after customer clamoring for the latest toys and niceties, cars have evolved from the mechanical relics of an all-analog past to the rolling supercomputers they are today. Even something as basic as a rental-grade Civic or a sparsely-equipped 86 is brimming with enough writing and sensors to throw aerospace engineers of old into a spiral. And as I’ve learned, automakers haven’t necessarily been the most efficient in developing and implementing such tech. That’s not to say the current ways of doing things don’t work, as they clearly do! But Ethernovia feels it could be better.

How Ethernovia does it

Miles of wiring and mini-ECU after mini-ECU occupy the innards of every car. Clearly, it must be a conspiracy to keep the rubber insulation and copper wire industries thriving! But such an abundance is what Ethernovia considers to be of great excess, and it’s what the company seeks to reduce. Not only would more minimalist systems maintain or improve the performance of the automakers’ designs, but it’d also reduce complexity and margin for system error. This equates to lowered production costs for the OEMs and safer vehicles for consumers, especially in a future heavily leaning into the safety assists and autonomous driving tech that relies so heavily on computers and sensors.

You’d think simplifying such systems would be a given for OEMs, but such an effort can often be overlooked when engineers get spread thin on a project or said manufacturers would rather just use and install electronics from existing legacy brands (Continental, Bosch, Denso, etc.)

Ethernovia stock car wiring diagram
Typical car wiring diagram, Image credit: Ethernovia

One way Ethernovia achieves its goals is through the consolidation of your car’s computers into fewer, dedicated ECUs. Fewer ECUs to communicate with also mean less wiring and chips, simplifying the production and assembly of the car’s electricals while still enabling all the luxury or safety toys the OEMs and consumers want. Another is through the production of more efficient, sharper responding “high-performance” ECUs, with lower power draws and less latency in its computing power, which is crucial when implemented in lane-centering, automatic braking, or adaptive cruise where every millisecond counts in emergencies. Data can be processed quickly, and the safety systems’ actuators can react sooner.

Speaking of which.

Ethernovia stock car wiring diagram
Diagram of Ethernovia’s consolidated ECUs, Image credit: Ethernovia

New gizmos for the era of “software-defined vehicles”

Right on time for this little tech talk/introduction of mine, Ethernovia dropped details on new chips they’ve been developing with efficiency in mind. The company announced the launch of two new 7nm PHYs (physical layers or basically the hardware in a circuit, such as chips, ports, and cabling), dubbed ENT11100 and ENT11025, respectively. Their claim to fame reportedly is that they have the industry’s lowest power draw while still having levels of processing power that meet Ethernovia’s standards for appeasing software-defined vehicles. For the die-hard techies who’ll understand it better than I do, know these new PHYs are the first and only products in their field to support 10 Gbps (Gigabits per second, a measure of bandwidth and data transmission), 5 Gbps, 2.5 Gbps, and 1Gbps.

At its fastest, Ethernovia’s PHYs are capable of transferring data at 4,500 Gigabytes per hour. At its slowest, it’s more like 450 Gigabytes per hour. Compare that to the estimated average of 25 per hour in today’s connected cars.

Ethernovia services
Image credit: Ethernovia

“Electrification, increasing connectivity demands, and the advancement of automated driving functions result in ever-increasing requirements on fast and secure data transmission in the vehicle and to the cloud,” stated semiconductor expert and systems architect for Volkswagen Group, Andreas Aal. “Ethernovia’s new PHY meets these demands by offering energy-efficient, high-bandwidth, low-latency data transmission paired with embedded co-optimized safety and security IP to enable a seamless and holistic architecture transition that paves the way up to future software-defined vehicles.”

Essentially, the ENT11100 and ENT11025 chips possess greater data transmission abilities for improving safety and functionality in today’s field of cars while being capable of saving energy. When implemented in mass within a car’s entire electrical system, the resulting energy savings could bode well for system reliability as well as possibly prolong the range of electric vehicles. Single-port variants are currently being sampled by prospective customers, with quad-port variants due to be available for sampling later this year.

Yes, very creative with the nomenclatures, I know. But at least all the creative juices flowed into making their crop of gizmos work as advertised to help automakers and consumers alike.

Ethernovia is up to some pretty rad stuff, and it’s companies like this seeking real solutions to real problems that we should be backing, not those who pride themselves on nothing but glitz, glam, and publicity through controversy. I wish Ethernovia and other companies like them the very best in their efforts, for if they succeed on an industry-wide scale, it will truly lead to the safer and more affordable cars we’ve been yearning for. And in my opinion, although it’s not the most star-studded headline, it’s certainly worth more curiosity than some 8-bit tinker toy of an EV rendered in 144p.

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Ultra Cruise is dead and GM has killed it

Semi-autonomous driving assistance features are becoming more common and more popular among buyers, but General Motors recently changed course with a decision to abandon its upcoming Ultra Cruise feature in favor of an enhanced version of its existing Super Cruise system.

Super Cruise has been around for a few years now and has expanded into Chevrolet vehicles from its start with Cadillacs. Ultra Cruise was touted as the next big thing, allowing hands-free driving in neighborhoods and city streets instead of being limited to highways. The system would have been a direct competitor for Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) technology and was expected to be the premium offering in GM’s vehicles, but the move to stick with Super Cruise could be less confusing for buyers.

The $340,000 Cadillac Celestiq was scheduled to be the first vehicle with Ultra Cruise, but GM said it wouldn’t be available at launch. GM is adamant this change has nothing to do with the challenges it’s experienced with its autonomous vehicle development arm, Cruise. The automaker told several publications that it wants to focus more resources on Super Cruise instead of expanding into a new product.

While this might disappoint buyers hoping for a more involved autonomous driving system from GM, Super Cruise is far from a terrible consolation prize. The function works on more than 400,000 miles of highways in North America, and the move to combine Ultra Cruise efforts with the system will likely yield dramatic improvements in urban areas.

GM hasn’t detailed plans to roll out new features for Super Cruise, nor has it said when or if the multiple-six-figure Celestiq would receive the updated features. At the same time, Tesla is facing investigations over its use of driver monitoring tech while semi-autonomous features are active, so it could be a good time for GM to make inroads with its tech.

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EVs ExplainedFeatures

EVs Explained: Breaking down the five levels of autonomous driving technology

Hello again! No need for the triple-shot espresso and the phonebook-sized notepad, as today’s chapter of EVs Explained will be far more straightforward – I hope. Today’s field trip is through the ascending levels of autonomous driving and what goes into these purported self-driving cars. Let’s talk about what really defines each level of vehicle autonomy, what tech goes into them, and what examples of modern cars use such new-age technology.

Love or hate it, we’re entering a bold new world of strong independent vehicles that “don’t need no damn human,” and we’re peeking at what makes them tick. Or rather drive. 

Not so autonomous, not always electric.

Disclaimers before we kick off this first segment!

Take the use of “self-driving” and “autonomous cars” with a grain of salt, and treat them as umbrella terms. Oftentimes, such words just describe safety assists that aid in hustling you from Point A to Point B safely and conveniently. Many instances of what are considered levels of vehicle autonomy aren’t all that autonomous but more like watchful eyes, with the ratio of human-to-machine intervention shifting as we climb the ladder and add copious amounts of gadgets

Also, note that autonomous driving doesn’t solely encompass EVs. In fact, much of the tech used in self-driving cars debuted in ICE cars. But it’s becoming the more prominent medium through which automakers unveil these crown achievements because nothing says future more than everything-by-wire, spaceship noises, and range anxiety. 

Image credit: SAE International

Level 1: Driver assistance

The first stage in achieving autonomy is clearing that Level 1 hurdle, defined as semi-autonomous driver assistance that merely shares control with the driver and only to a mild extent. The electronic doo-dads exist as extra hands on deck, but you are still the ship’s captain. They’re helpers, guides, and advisors but ultimately cannot take full command. Examples include adaptive cruise control, parallel park, lane keep assist, and other useful gizmos along those lines, typically things that function off relatively basic camera and sensor-based systems.

Such gadgets have become commonplace in ordinary econoboxes over the past several years. For example, my dad’s mid-trim 2017 Toyota Tacoma had lane keep and adaptive cruise. And to be honest, they worked pretty damn well! Today, brands like Toyota and Subaru pride themselves on standard or easily available Level 1 systems like Safety Sense and Eyesight, respectively. More than a sales pitch, these systems are rapidly entering normality, now touted in just about anything, from top-shelf Mercedes and BMWs to Ford Mustangs and Subaru BRZs

Image credit: Toyota

Level 2: Partial automation

The next step sees improved competence with acceleration, steering, and braking based on integrated safety systems. Level 2 cars can follow lanes, come to complete stops, and accelerate to fairly lofty highway speeds. As such, Level 2 is informally dubbed a “hands-free” system. However, it’s important to know you shouldn’t take that literally, and company disclaimers will advise that drivers keep their hands on the wheel or at least be ready to resume control like a responsible adult. For instance, although the Acura Integra Type-S and MDX Type-S I previously sampled were not Level 2 cars, they did have self-lane-centering tech that almost felt as though the car could drive itself, but it’d always flash a warning at the driver every several seconds or so to return your hands to the wheel.

Oftentimes, these systems won’t take highway exits or traverse parking garages on your behalf, although some cars may be programmed to try some of those actions under your supervision. Many will at least initiate lane changes to pass slower traffic, which is kind of them. Helping guide Level 2 cars is a task that can call upon an assortment of visual cameras, radars, and other sensors to help navigate.

Original image credit: Storyset, Freepik

By SAE and NHTSA standards, Tesla’s Autopilot is a prime example of Level 2, as is GM Super Cruise and Ford BlueCruise. Cars such as the F-150 Lightning made BlueCruise famous following that truck’s expansive media coverage, as did the Cadillac CT6, Escalade, and Chevrolet Silverado for Super Cruise. Both Detroit-born systems have exponentially enhanced steering, braking, and adaptive cruise abilities beyond plain adaptive cruise control, arguably trumping Tesla Autopilot thanks to the added use of lidar, a.k.a. laser-based ranging, and GPS data. However, Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot (a feature of Enhanced Autopilot but not Full Self-Driving) isn’t as restricted and can be activated in many off-highway locations, far outside the reach of Ford and GM, even taking highway exits should the system find it feasible at the moment.

However, engineers place parameters to encourage driver intervention in the name of occupant safety and avoiding lawsuits. That first point is totally more important to the corporate suits, by the way. Such parameters often include geofencing and cameras that trace your head and eye positions to determine driver attentiveness. 

Or, when all else fails, they can just blame it on you. Sounds like my parents.

Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

Level 3: Conditional automation

Behold the goalpost where many automakers strive to land, but only a few have hit the mark. NHTSA defines Level 3 as real self-driving, the point where the driving aid systems can take complete control of the vehicle. This fabled new height in technology expands upon the car’s newfound ability to steer, brake, and accelerate but does so across more environments and with more liberty, theoretically allowing these cars to embark on complete journeys independently. Of course, “independently” for Level 3 still means laying watchful eyes and being ready to shut down any robot-uprising nonsense.

Although many debate the true abilities of Tesla’s Full-Self Driving, I argue it could be touted as Level 3 autonomy, expanding heavily upon Autopilot. It certainly scoots from place to place, even if it has a taste for mortal blood, and tends to sail into its fellow machines from time to time. But alas, as of late December of 2023, it’s not SAE-certified as such. Being the first certified Level 3 autonomous cars in any U.S. state is an honor bestowed to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS and their Drive Pilot system, even if it’s only in limited locations.

Impressive! But once again, I iterate that automakers necessitate driver overwatch, and the mighty Three-Pointed Star is no exception, even after earning its Good Noodle Star over its peers.

Image credit: Mercedes-Benz

Level 4: High automation

Careful, Icarus. Now we’re really flying high.

NHTSA defines Level 4 as a system where the car can command all aspects of driving to a point where human intervention is not always necessitated. The overarching Achilles’ heel connecting Level 4 to Level 2 and Level 3 is that they’re all limited to operating within certain boundaries, unable to drive on all roads or in all weather conditions without human backup. A Level 4 system can be geofenced or kept from activating in certain situations akin to lower-tier systems such as Super Cruise or BlueCruise, but it stands taller with greater control and refinement.

In essence, it can do more within a larger playpen and even correct mistakes without our help instead of self-canceling. That latter point is a major differentiator and why some companies opt to dive straight into Level 4 development rather than work on Level 3.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So those pesky Germans may have beaten Elon’s fleet to Level 3 certification. But certainly, Level 4 is in the bag. Or so they’d think. Or so anyone would think, as Level 4 stands as the next big power play, with no current production cars certified for such technology. However, there being no certified vehicles doesn’t mean they’re not testing. And with all the work automakers put in to barely attain Level 2 and Level 3 certs, they’re being quite frank in saying it’d be a while until they set anything in stone. Mercedes claims the technology is “doable” by 2030, and Hyundai is currently testing Level 4 with Ioniq 5 mules.

Technically, if we’re counting any company and not just legacy automakers, Google’s Waymo project, now partnered with Uber, operates off what’s technically Level 4 autonomy. Their vehicles have been testing and operating as robo taxis in select cities for some time, seeing their fair share of successes and disasters in the process.

Level 5: Full automation

‘Tis the king of the hill that all auto manufacturers strive for, the stuff of video game fever dreams and sci-fi movie fantasies. Queue our inner Doug DeMuro voice.

THIS… is a true, fully self-driving car. “

Level 5 is defined as full automation or, as NHTSA paraphrases, “–system drives, you ride.” Here lies uninhibited vehicle autonomy with the most liberal use of self-driving functions, intended to be the ultimate riding experience for occupants. Manual controls are redundant, and driver attention monitors are banished to irrelevancy. The lack of restrictions, such as geofencing, separates Level 5 from the overprotective mom, called Level 4. This highest tier of autonomous vehicles leaves the nest to achieve true self-driving in nearly any condition and on any road. Human intervention is no longer necessary.

As you can imagine, nothing outside of Cyberpunk or Watch Dogs is certified as Level 5 autonomous, and reaching this realm will take a great deal of testing, refinement, and failsafe after failsafe. Those sci-fi visions of cars navigating gridlock without steering wheels or pedals are utopian examples of what a Level 5 car can be, and programming such cars to properly respond to every little variable in real-world driving will be a hell of a feat. But an engineer can dream. And should technology press on at the rate it’s going, it’s not a far-fetched delusion to believe Level 5 will be within our grasp. But I’ll give it until 2077. 

Image credit: Daniel Ramirez, Wikimedia Commons

Gather our eggs into one robo taxi.

Let’s take it from the top. Or rather, the bottom.

Level 1 is just boujee driver assistance. It’s a fairly basic and common system nowadays, imbuing many new cars with helpful nannies, including parking assist, adaptive cruise, lane keeping, and more. To learn more, please pester your local Toyota salesman. No, seriously. 

Level 2 refers to additional driver assistance by way of enhanced control over acceleration, braking, and steering. Not unrestricted, but it can take a huge load off your commute when under your watch. Many major car companies have introduced or have started introducing such systems, with Tesla’s Autopilot perhaps being the most famous (or infamous) of them all.

Level 3 equates to conditional automation, meaning the car can control itself to an even greater extent. Highway traversing or some urban jaunts are a non-issue for Level 3, so long as the driver is always at the ready to take back the helm when needed. Few cars taut Level 3, and even fewer are SAE-certified for it. 

Level 4 cars can almost care for themselves within reason and operate under a fairly strict set of parameters and in select environments. As such, drivers are optional but unnecessary, but manual control is always there as a safety net. Manufacturer testers and robo-taxi companies are currently fielding such tech.

Level 5 stands as the magnum opus autonomous vehicle engineers seek to create, a fully self-driving car with no limitations as to where it can go, completely writing the driver out of the equation. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It makes your head spin to think how far we’ve come, huh? From parking sensors to self-driving taxis parading the streets of major cities. Yes, as I’m sure you can infer by my subtle jabs, there’s no denying this is highly controversial and dangerous tech and certainly an injury lawyer’s dream come true. And sure, some manufacturers are far better at testing than others. But it’s admirable how all strive to tame this riveting new frontier, the stuff of childhood curiosity. The skepticism it sparked is well-deserved, but witnessing how this technology evolves as we lean deeper into the automotive industry’s most polarizing era incites just as much excitement.

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Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot dashboard
New Car Reviews

We tested a Level 3 self-driving Mercedes, and it’s better than expected

As I watch YouTube videos and catch up on my emails, traffic flows around me on the 10 freeway headed east toward Downtown Los Angeles. Eventually, I look up – yep, still bumper to bumper with no hope of respite. I send a few texts, then glance around at the drivers stuck next to me, most driving every bit as distracted as me. If a CHP officer passed, they’d be breaking the law. Not me, though, because I’m behind the wheel of an all-electric EQS equipped with Mercedes-Benz’s new Drive Pilot system.

Mercedes recently brought a fleet of cars out to LA hoping to show media the industry’s latest and greatest in the inevitable, yet sluggish, crawl toward self-driving vehicles on public roads. Benz also brought a team of engineers along to answer any questions we might come up with while testing the first and only Level 3 system approved for use in the United States — and yes, there were many questions worth asking and answering.

What’s the difference between Level 1, 2, and 3 autonomous driving?

Before I let a German robot pilot me around the universe’s main hub for rush-hour traffic, I spent some time giving myself a quick primer on what exactly the autonomous driving levels 1 through 5 actually mean. And the differences bear repeating to fully comprehend Mercedes-Benz’s achievement as the first automaker to earn official Level 3 approval (at least in California, but more on that later). 

Levels 1 and 2 are already commonplace: Level 1 is either adaptive cruise control or lane keep assist programs that still require a human driver’s hand on the wheel while Level 2 is able to take on multiple functions of steering, acceleration, and braking with a human’s oversight still present. Tesla’s Autopilot and GM’s Super Cruise, for example, qualify as Level 2 autonomy — though systems that can manage a lane change are now sometimes called Level 2+.

Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

Level 3 ups the ante into a realm much nearer to true autonomous driving, albeit bounded by very tightly defined scenarios. On paper, Mercedes-Benz calls Drive Pilot “SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving” to satisfy the requisite legalese. In short, that means the system will only work on some roads, at some speeds, and within frameworks that clearly delineate risk management and liability for the system hardware, software, and programming.

To an extent, Level 4 remains somewhat theoretical, taking the onus off the driver entirely and letting the car intervene in every scenario. A human can still override in the case of emergency, though — think robotaxis and delivery shuttles undergoing tests across the planet for the past few years. Level 4 only exists currently in certain parking garages in Germany, which are very controlled environments, to say the least. 

Level 5, meanwhile, is the full dreamboat, with no driver required and possibly not even steering wheels or pedals in the vehicle. We’re talking full robotic overlords — a new world order that will likely require separate roads with no humans to throw off the synchronized dance too much.

To clarify, the technology to enable Level 5 autonomy already exists. While Tesla led the charge (pun fully intended) toward Level 2, Elon Musk’s vision was limited (literally) by using only video-based analysis of road conditions. Level 3 so far requires more detection hardware, in Mercedes-Benz’s case a combination of stereo multipurpose camera angles to simulate three-dimensional vision, along with long-range radar that scans the road and environment using electromagnetic waves, and long-range lidar that scans with swiveling laser beams at various heights. The combined radar, lidar, video, and even audio (to detect far-off emergency sirens) includes many hardware redundancies to prevent a single failure from bricking the system or causing potential gaps in analysis that might lead to an accident.

Which Mercedes-Benz models come equipped with Drive Pilot?

Benz’s backups and redundancies run the gamut, from two separate electric steering motors to double ECUs, a rear camera dedicated to emergency vehicle overtaking, microphones inside the cabin, a new antenna for satellite positioning accurate to one centimeter, maps that take into consideration continental shift over time, and even a road moisture sensor that detects the sound of water within the front wheel arches. Model year 2024 EQS and S-Class cars will be available with the suite beginning in early 2024 — surprisingly, at no additional cost upfront.

Actually using the hardware requires committing to a subscription of $2,500 per year, though, and only customers in California and Nevada get the option because Drive Pilot is only approved in those two states. To achieve that certification, Mercedes-Benz mapped out over 100,000 miles of testing in California within what engineers called Drive Pilot’s “operational design domain” (ODD), which means on freeways where stop-and-go traffic is common. Challenges included teaching the computer to recognize lane stripes versus reflective dots, mapping GPS locations for multi-level freeways, and sorting out the proper use of carpool lanes. 

The California Highway Patrol actually worked closely with Mercedes to develop the system and even requested a potentially novel turquoise light visible outside cars using Level 3 programs so that emergency responders can identify what they’re dealing with more easily. Nevada, on the other hand, only required self-certification (because of course, it’s Nevada).

Drive Pilot’s ODD requires speeds below 40 miles per hour, clear lane markings, not too much road curvature, clear weather and lighting conditions, and a high-definition map to be available in the system’s memory. Mercedes declined to confirm exactly how many miles within California and Nevada the system currently covers, though, presumably because the stat will pale in comparison to Autopilot or Super Cruise.

How to use Drive Pilot

Many fewer miles might sound less than ideal in headlines, but Drive Pilot theoretically delivers an entirely different level of capability. So how well does it work? I got assigned an EQS at random, with a quiet, knowledgeable engineer in the passenger seat. First, we watched a mandatory educational video on the large center console screen, which all customers will need to complete before being allowed to activate Drive Pilot. Then I purposefully drove us into rush-hour traffic headed towards Downtown LA from Santa Monica — exactly what I try to avoid on a Friday afternoon. As soon as we hopped on the 10, we hit a bumper-to-bumper jam. Perfect!

Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

The EQS immediately recognized the situation and blue lights above the two buttons on the steering wheel lit up. The gauge cluster also prompted the fact that Drive Pilot was now available. I touched the button and slowly felt the steering wheel begin to shift underhand. Hesitant, of course, I hovered for a few seconds to make sure everything stayed hunky-dory. Then I laughed.

After all, at this point, we’re not too far removed from the Level 2 systems I’m used to testing. But for those, I can usually count to only 10 seconds before the cars start dinging for me to give the steering wheel a nudge with my hand and fake like I’m paying attention. Not so here. Time to mess with robots, then.

Trusting the ghost in the machine

First, I picked up my iPhone to see exactly how distracted Mercedes believes is too distracted. No problem, until I essentially buried my face in the phone to the point that the infrared eye-tracking system could no longer detect my eyes for an extended period. Ding ding, time to take over driving again. After a few seconds with my hands on the wheel, the blue lights illuminated again and I ceded control back to the car again.

Next, I reclined the EQS’s sumptuous seat, which reps had earlier said would cue a warning. Not so, I found, until my eyes once again lost sight of the infrared camera’s viewing angle. Once more I straightened out with my hands on the wheel and activated Drive Pilot. This time around, I put on sunglasses — which the Lexus RX500h I tested earlier this year struggled with during even Level 2 driving. Not the case here.

Finally, I started fiddling with YouTube and pulled up some rally racing videos as a proper distraction. Not only did the Dolby Atmos sound system blast those banshee engines screaming past, but I could click around and fully absorb in finding good vids without Drive Pilot fretting. All the while, the EQS kept a comfortable following distance from the car ahead of me and I even noticed the car almost imperceptibly shifting over in the lane a few times when motorcycles came up from behind while lane-splitting — a uniquely Californian concern for autonomous driving software.

Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

I never pushed the limit much past 30 seconds of dinging, but Mercedes-Benz reps explained that should I have been completely derelict in my duties, videos playing on the center console would have frozen, a yellow message would have lit up, red lights and acoustic warnings would have increased, and then the seatbelt would have jerked for 10 seconds. In the off chance a driver still remains unresponsive, the car will then slow to a standstill while staying in its lane and, assuming a medical issue may be underway, turns the hazard lights on, calls emergency response automatically, and unlocks the doors.

Staying in the lane is a critical point here. But so is the top speed of 40 miles per hour (or 60 kilometers per hour in Germany, where Drive Pilot began customer sales earlier in 2023). If traffic clears up enough for the car to exceed that speed, Mercedes-Benz’s Level 2+ system can initiate, with lane keep and adaptive cruise activated and lane changes allowed up to 85 miles per hour.

Other than the physical hardware and computing power to analyze the data from all those sensors and cameras, Level 3 also requires human programmers to finetune the way Drive Pilot interacts with a human driver. And I found myself almost concerned by how quickly I developed confidence in the Level 3 system. Dropping back down to only Level 2, on the other hand, requires a bit of a mindset shift that needs to be very clearly delineated for the driver — and Benz nailed that transition, too. 

We’ve come a long way from Level 1 and 2 autonomy, largely because of the smoothness by which Drive Pilot steers and manages speed. No lurching or sudden braking, no ping-ponging off lines or cracks in the road, no random freakouts in my hour-plus of driving (or riding, I suppose, would be more accurate). I only drove the EQS, though, and no S-Class. Theoretically, an EV might be better for modulating speed and braking.

Theory in practice… and liability

You might have noticed my frequent use of the word “theoretically” to describe many of Drive Pilot’s capabilities. But this is the real world, and autonomous driving theory is now being enacted in real life. I went into this day of testing with Isaac Asimov on my mind, ready to apply the three rules of robotics to the best of my abilities. But Mercedes-Benz clearly designed Drive Pilot’s Level 3 ODD to reduce liability the best it could.

The Mercedes reps I spoke with declined to share any stats about how Drive Pilot’s debut in Germany has performed, other than to say that no major incidents have occurred so far. But we don’t even know how many customers shelled out that annual fee this year. Still, I brought up the classic conundrum: What if the Drive Pilot needs to make a split-second decision between hitting a pregnant mother or two children? 

Highly unlikely on the 10 freeway, was the answer, though I’ve seen stranger things — like when I was testing Super Cruise in a GMC Hummer EV and an E90 BMW came crawling across traffic at a full right angle. Super Cruise balked in that scenario and forced me to a full ABS stop in a 9,000-pound brick. Would Drive Pilot pick up the E90 on lidar or radar earlier and response quickly enough? I don’t know, but I do know that the EQS would not leave its lane to miss the BMW in that scenario. The ODD wouldn’t let it.

More realistically, imagine a motorcycle cuts into the lane without signaling and brakes hard. Driving 40 miles per hour, would Drive Pilot slam on the brakes and risk being hit by a hypothetical semi truck following too closely behind? Probably, because that would put liability on the semi-truck driver even if the resultant accident would be more damaging than swerving into the side of an SUV in the next lane while avoiding the motorcyclist.

But therein lies the big question: liability. Even if Drive Pilot was truly programmed with liability in mind, who exactly makes the final determination of liability in the case of an accident becomes a critical question. 

The liability question fits into the definitions of Level 2 and 3, to an extent: In Level 2, the driver is responsible but for Level 3, the vehicle is responsible. As long as the driver uses a Level 3 system as intended — which does require keeping the car well maintained so that all the hardware and software can operate as intended — then if the system fails, Benz is on the hook.

I asked whether Drive Pilot records the passenger compartment video to make sure that drivers didn’t cause problems. Apparently not. Next, I can’t help but wonder whether insurance companies will be happy sorting out the blame game when robots and massive multinational conglomerate legal teams get into the mix. Sure, California and Nevada (well, Nevada sort of) legally approved Level 3 in such strict scenarios, but we all know how these things play out when big money enters the picture.

For Benz, the next step for Drive Pilot will involve ramping up to 80 miles per hour in Level 3, exponentially increasing the following and stopping distances. Therefore video, radar, and lidar range are required. But then the system will work for real road-tripping, rather than requiring a step back down into Level 2+ (even if Level 2+ works quite well, too).

For me, the most important question only came to mind after the fact. I’m competitive with the robots that will one day take over my driving duties, so I need to know: In an EQS, does Drive Pilot improve EV range versus a smooth, conscientious human driver? Answering that question will require much more testing, but for now, the future of autonomous driving is here — in an admittedly limited, yet still very impressive, capacity.

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