Mercedes-Benz is seeking regulatory approval to introduce its new Drive Pilot technology into the U.S. market this year, the automaker’s CEO told reporters, and hopes to launch the hands-free system in China, as well.
There is an ongoing, industry-wide race to commercialize hands-free and even fully driverless technologies. German regulators recently approved the use of the Mercedes system, marking the first Level 3 technology capable of operating on public roads. Several other manufacturers, such as Tesla and General Motors, have introduced systems capable of some hands-free operation in passenger vehicles, though they fall into the less capable Level 2 category.
But a yet more advanced, fully driverless technology could soon be in commercial operation, GM now seeking approval to deploy Cruise Origin ride share vans in San Francisco. Those shuttles would have neither steering wheel nor other traditional controls.
Rollout begins in Germany
Mercedes said it will begin deploying Drive Pilot in the flagship S-Class sedan for sale in Germany before mid-year. It will follow with the all-electric EQS sedan. Even before then, it is laying out plans for a global rollout, starting with other European markets later this year and then heading abroad.
“We are working on the United States and are in talks with authorities in China about certifying such a technology there,” Mercedes Chief Executive Ola Källenius said on Thursday.
If approved, Drive Pilot would join several other advanced driving systems already available in the U.S. Officially, Tesla’s Autopilot still requires a driver to maintain at least grip on the steering wheel, though motorists frequently go hands-off, especially with the latest so-called “Full Self-Driving” version. General Motors’ Super Cruise actually permits hands-off operation on about 200,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian roads.
But a driver using Super Cruise is closely monitored to ensure they maintain eyes on the road and they are ready to immediately take over in an emergency. Ford’s upcoming BlueCruise will have similar capabilities and limitations. Both systems fall into what is often referred to as “Level 2+” autonomy.
Drive Pilot is the first system to climb into Level 3 autonomy. Drivers will be able to look away, for one thing, perhaps to check text messages. But it still has limitations. Initially, German regulators have only authorized its use at speeds up to 37 mph and, even then, only on about 8,000 miles of the country’s roadways. A driver may still be warned to retake control under certain conditions, which can include bad weather as well as pressing emergencies.
Taking the driver out of the equation requires even more sophisticated technology that falls into the Level 4 category, according to industry and regulatory guidelines.
Taking the driver out of the equation
And that’s what GM’s Cruise subsidiary has been working on. It already is testing Level 4 technology in versions of the Chevrolet Bolt EV as part of the ride-sharing service it operates around its headquarters in San Francisco. Until recently, those battery-electric vehicles have had back-up drivers behind the wheel. Now, some have been modified to operate without a human operator.
Cruise has reached out to U.S. regulators seeking permission to take things another step. It wants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to let it begin building and deploying the toaster-shaped Origin. The all-electric shuttle won’t even have human controls, such as pedals and steering wheels.
“The submission of this petition signals that Cruise and GM are ready to build and deploy the Origin, here in America,” Cruise stated in a blog post.
With government approval, the first of the four-seat shuttles will be produced late this year at GM’s Factory Zero EV plant in Detroit. Pilot operation would begin in San Francisco early in 2023.
Federal motor vehicles regulations allow an automaker to obtain exemptions from current standards for up to 2,500 vehicles.
While Cruise has not said how many Origin shuttles it wants to build, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra on Wednesday noted that the autonomous driving subsidiary hopes to quickly add other markets after initially launching pilot service in San Francisco.
The system that Cruise is developing still has its limitations. For one thing, as a Level 4 technology it will be “geo-fenced,” restricting the roads it can operate on, even with all the camera, radar and Lidar sensors it uses. And operations could be restricted during bad weather.
The industry’s ultimate goal is to reach Level 5. This would deliver the sort of capabilities until now found only in science fiction. A Level 5 vehicle could operate anytime, anywhere without a driver.
But, for now, that is expected to take a decade or more to achieve, according to most experts.
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