What is it?
It's quite simple - the Highway Pilot E-Class is a driverless car. Which might sound a bit far-fetched, but isn't quite as 2030 as you'd imagine. Because the basic elements are already on sale. Quite a few cars these days have got lane guidance technology that stops you veering out of your lane on the motorway. And ‘active' cruise control - which maintains a constant distance to the car in front - has been around for years. So Merc has taken that tech, done what we hope is a reasonable amount of tweaking to the software, and created a car that will quite literally drive itself.
How does it work?
There are various radars and cameras dotted all round the car, watching everything from the white lines to traffic ahead and behind. As soon as the system detects you're on a motorway - it has to be on a highway because there aren't pedestrians, or cars coming the other way, to confuse things - you can set the car's cruise control to a certain speed. Then wait for the sensors to work out where the white lines are, get the green light, and take your hands off the wheel.
All of these detectors are currently available on production Mercs, which is why the Germans think they're not that far off making this work on a ‘normal' car. It's - surprisingly - not especially sci-fi.
And does it work?
Amazingly well. To be honest, the weakest part was us, because it takes AN ENORMOUS leap of faith to take your hands off the steering wheel and your feet off the pedals at 110kph. And all while you're heading for a lorry. None of this is a logical thing to do.
As such, it's difficult to chillax. You've got to concentrate as much as you would if you were driving. But as soon as you gain confidence in it, it becomes less intimidating. It's still weird watching the steering wheel move by itself, but the strangest part comes as you get near to a lorry.
All the various sensors analyse the road around to check it's all clear, the E-Class indicates by itself, pulls out into the fast lane smoothly, and overtakes the truck. Once we're past, it pulls back in. I'm not touching the pedals, steering wheel, indicators - nothing. We're totally surplus to requirements for the entire manoeuvre.
So you could be sat on the back seat?
Not quite. The E-Class we ‘drove' is still a prototype, so we had to be in the driver's seat, hands at the ready in case there was a system failure. And besides, the technology isn't legal at the moment, so a reasonably responsible human still has to be nominally in charge at all times.
That doesn't sound very ‘driverless'.....
You're right. The problem is twofold:
Like I said before, the legislation just isn't there yet. Merc reckons the EU will have got round to drafting some legal stuff governing all this by 2016/7 - even though the US is already doing it in certain states for things like the Google car.
And even if all this did get through the EU, none of the systems are foolproof. Manufacturers understandably get a bit twitchy about no-one being in charge of the vehicle. So a human will still need to be the fail-safe, concentrating on the road.
So no watching TV on my morning commute just yet?
Not quite. A fully automated car is a long way off yet. But it's a start, and there's certainly plenty of potential.
What is it?