AT first the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class has quite a familiar feel about it. There are the understated yet stylish good looks, the ever-impressive inclusions list and the obvious luxury. It is all reassuringly Mercedes, a car you know that is not going to disappoint.
It is the large widescreen cockpit which incidentally, seamlessly uses two 12.3inch LCD screens alongside each other, that gives the first indication that this car is out of the ordinary, a little something special.
And it is. This 10th generation E-Class shows that without doubt Benz has its eye firmly on a future that includes driverless cars. This E-Class is a giant leap forward in automated systems and is one of the most technologically advanced cars on the road.
Wow me with what it can do
Using a combination of cameras, sensors and radar, the E-Class can steer you along up to speeds of 210kmh, can change lanes on a multi-lane road when it is safe enough to do so and will brake to avoid a collision with a stopped vehicle ahead.
It can detect whether a car entering from a side road is a potential accident risk and brake accordingly, it can alert the driver to pedestrians crossing then slow the car and support the driver in keeping control if he swerves to avoid them.
The E-Class has adaptive brake assist for drivers who don't brake hard enough to avoid a collision, it will bring you back into your lane if you stray and can detect cyclists, parked cars and oncoming traffic. It can sense if you are going to be hit from behind and can brace the car and activate features to keep you as safe as possible. If a driver is unresponsive or has had a medical emergency, the car can slow to a stop after 30 seconds and activate the hazard lights.
And of course, the E-Class can park itself - forward, reverse or parallel park.
On overseas models you can actually get out of the car and watch it park itself and the technology is available to use your smart phone to ask the car to leave the parking bay and pick you up at the front of the shops. Super awesome for Christmas shopping.
So I can put my feet up?
Hmm, not quite. Mercedes stresses the point that this E-Class, as awesome as it is, boasts marvellous automated technology but it is not autonomous. The driver assistance aids are just that, there to help the driver to have a safer, more pleasant journey, but ultimately, it is the driver who is in charge. The car will let out a visual and audible warning if you take your hands off the steering for more than a few seconds.
What's the difference?
Well, automated technology is, as Mercedes points out, purely driver assistance systems, there to aid not replace driver involvement.
Autonomous technology, where the car basically drives itself with very little input from someone behind the wheel, is the destination that most of the big automotive companies have in their mind's eye.
A large number of manufacturers, including BMW, Audi, Volvo, Land Rover and Mercedes, are already in advanced testing but there is still work to do. There are also ethical issues and legislation to overcome before autonomous cars are a reality. It will be years rather than decades though.
But what about Google cars?
While car manufacturers prefer to take smaller steps towards autonomous driving, Google, unhindered by an automotive history started with the artificial intelligence needed and then built a car around that.
Google's intention was always to have a car that did not need a driver and they are using systems that are built to think like a driver. It helps too that Google has a superior mapping system - thanks to the American military GPS is not as accurate as we need - so their cars work well on roads they are set up for.
Despite their progress Google's cars are far from failsafe. For now. They are affected by weather and road conditions and also by the fact that they are programmed to follow the road rules and expect other users to follow suite. Uber and Apple are also reportedly testing a self-drive car.
Is this a new concept?
Far from it. Of course, the road to autonomous driving really started with ESP or stability control but even some three decades ago great things were being done in the field. German engineer Ernst Dickmanns was working out of Munich University on a joint project with Daimler-Benz called Prometheus.
Dickmanns and his team used a number of transputers in a car to pioneer a three-dimensional mobile vision system. In 1995, they were able to get their car to drive autonomously for 95% of the 1700km round trip from Munich to Odense in Denmark, achieving speeds up to 175kmh on the autobahn.
Who else is dabbling?
Who isn't? There isn't a car manufacturer around not using driver assistance technology with the big players like Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Audi, Lexus and Nissan well advanced in terms of autonomous testing.
Land Rover is currently involved in trying out their off-road assistance systems.
Is it safe?
Tesla's recent accidents have pushed the safety of autonomous technology into the spotlight.
While industry authorities are still investigating why their systems failed, it is important to understand the technology on our roads today still requires an intense degree of driver involvement.
You still have to keep your hands on the wheel and be involved. You can bet your bottom that no manufacturer is going to sell an autonomous car if it is not safe.
Each year more than 1.4 million people across the world die in motor vehicle accidents that are a result of driver error. But even if you plan for all eventualities accidents can happen.
What can go wrong?
Each year more than 1.4 million people across the world die in motor vehicle accidents that are a result of driver error. The thinking is that autonomous cars will make our roads safer by eliminating many of the variables but at the moment the systems doing the rounds are still susceptible to sensor fusion, bad weather, poor roads, hacking and of course human interference.
A question of ethics
Unlike humans who react instinctively in an accident, an autonomous car will have to calculate all the possible scenarios and choose a response that could involve a choice between killing the car's occupants or people outside. There is a ream of legislation that will have to change to allow autonomous cars on our roads and naturally, Insurance companies will have to decide how to attribute fault when an autonomous car is involved in an accident.
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