I played video games and closed my eyes while driving a Mercedes

Santa Monica, California CNN  — 

It was a cloudy day in Los Angeles when I went out in search of a traffic jam, something that’s not hard to find there. I was looking for slow traffic because I wanted to try out a new technology from Mercedes-Benz that only works in traffic jams.

When you’re in highway traffic going under 40 miles an hour, Mercedes’ new Drive Pilot system can take over, operating the gas, brakes and steering to keep you moving along with the flow of traffic. Most importantly, though, you don’t have to pay attention while the system works. Mercedes even supplies games you can play in the center touch screen while your car crawls along.

If you’re using Drive Pilot on one of the highways Mercedes has 3D-mapped and you drive into a traffic jam, lights on the steering wheel will blink white to indicate when the system is ready work. Press a button on the steering wheel rim and the lights turn turquoise blue. Then you no longer have to hold the steering wheel or watch the road.

This is the first time any major automaker has offered a system for sale to the public that will literally drive the car for you. Sure, there are others that may, in purely practical terms, be “driving the car” in terms of basic steering and using the brakes but you, the human driver, must constantly be alert to what’s happening and monitor everything. With Drive Pilot, you get permission to fully check out while you’re behind the wheel, even if it’s just at low speeds.

If someone were to get in a crash while using this system, provided they’re using it correctly and the car has been properly maintained, Mercedes will accept liability. The system has already been available in Germany for more than a year, and, so far, no one has had to take them up on that. (Mercedes declined to say how many German drivers have purchased Drive Pilot, though, so it’s unclear how impressive that really is.)

The caveats

Drive Pilot comes with a list of caveats that would be the envy of any pharmaceutical ad writer. First, in the United States, it’s currently only legal in two states, Nevada and California. Even if you were to buy a car with the system in one of those states, it won’t work once you cross the state line. Second, besides just the fact that you have to be driving behind another vehicle in a traffic jam going less than 40 miles an hour, it won’t work in the dark or in the rain. (There are moisture sensors inside the wheel wells to detect a wet road.)

There are other conditions, too: Although you don’t have to pay attention, you must be ready to go eyes forward and take over when the system needs you to. That means you can’t recline your seat too far back or the system will blink lights and ring tones warning you that, unless you get back up, it’ll stop working. Same if you turn around in your seat too far to look behind you. You can go ahead and close your eyes briefly or look down at the screen as long you feel like. You just have to be, physically, ready to take over. Cameras and sensors inside the car make sure you’re not too far out of position.

Oh, also, you shouldn’t use your phone for two reasons. First, while this system is legal to use in California, your phone still isn’t while you’re “driving.” Second, Mercedes says, it’s a safety hazard because, in the event of an airbag deployment, you could end up with a smartphone getting smashed into your face. Seriously, that’s dangerous.

Even with all those limitations, it’s still pretty nice not having to pay attention during one of the most annoying parts of any trip. You don’t have to watch the car in front of you move and stop… move and stop while you monitor the vehicles on both sides to see if anyone is cutting in. The car does it all for you.

The downside

There’s a downside to the car doing stuff while you’re not paying attention, though. Drive Pilot maintains a gap between the Mercedes and the vehicle in front of it. And, since human drivers can be impatient and aggressive, someone will try to cut in front of you when they see that open space. It happened a couple of times during my test drive.

Drive Pilot responded the way many automated driving systems do in these sorts of situations. It hit the brakes abruptly. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind too much. Better to brake too hard than not hard enough. But I was looking down at the center screen, absorbed in a trivia game – “What building in Stuttgart has had a rotating Mercedes star on it since 1952?” – when the car suddenly lurched to a near stop.

If I’d been looking the road, I might have at least been mentally prepared. As it was, I was startled and had to look around to figure out what was happening. At least the next time the car lurched, I was startled but understood what was probably going on.

When the car needed me, like when the car ahead pulled away at over 40 mph, red lights blinked on the steering wheel to warn me. Here’s where things got a little complicated. I pressed a button to turn the system off and the car began to slow down then slow some more. I wondered what was going on. Before I had entered a traffic jam, I had been using the car’s adaptive cruise system. This is where the car will hold a lane and follow the car ahead of me – but I had to hold the steering wheel and pay attention. (In that mode, although my attention is required, the car can even change lanes on its own, which it cannot do in Drive Pilot.)

I had assumed that, when I turned Drive Pilot off, it would return to that semi-autonomous mode. But it didn’t. Instead, it left me drifting slower and slower before I caught on and pressed the accelerator pedal to avoid getting rear-ended. This is what’s known as “mode confusion” and it can be dangerous.

In the end, it’s not clear to me that this system is worth the money. At least not yet. Partly, that’s because it’s not entirely clear what the price is. For now, Mercedes will only say that it’s $2,500 for the first year. What is it for the second year? Maybe nothing? That hasn’t been decided yet.

For now, the system is available only on Mercedes’ two most expensive sedan models, the gasoline-powered S-class and the electric EQS. That, alone, makes it expensive. Prices for the S-class start at $114,500 and, for the EQS sedan, about $10,000 less. It’s unclear when Mercedes will make it available on less expensive models.


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