*Well, not here, but only in South Africa. And only 30 are being built. Boo
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The Mercedes-Benz F 015’s self-driving journey into the future started back in 2011 on a blank piece of paper in Mercedes’s Tokyo design studio. The brief was not to create a production autonomous vehicle, rather to examine what is possible with the technology available “the day after tomorrow”. So it’s not a concept car presaging a watered-down version you’ll be able to buy at a dealership in a couple of years’ time. It’s a research vehicle, a $50m automotive lab rat designed to showcase and test the technologies – and our reactions to them – that could define what a luxury vehicle might be like by the year 2030. Two years after the final sketch had been signed off, project Led Zeppelin – yes, really – started its two-year production process that ended with its debut at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas this January. Even though Audi had staged a largely autonomous drive of a fleet of A7s from California to the same show, they looked distinctly lo-fi next to the sci-fi F 015. It seems more than a coincidence that Merc picked 2030 as the F 015’s fictional launch date. The year 2029 is the date machine-learning boffin Alan Turing predicted – by projecting the rate of computer development – that a machine would be able to think like a human. Mercedes has either borrowed that thinking or, in a typically thorough Merc way, done its own calculations that have led it to the same conclusion. Either way, the F 015 is packed to the roof with technologies that try to understand and smooth the car–human interface, inside and outside the vehicle. Before we try to understand if any of it works and makes sense, we have first to understand what the world could be like 15 years from now. Mercedes’s futurologists say that, as the world’s population continues to explode, time and space are going to become more limited and valuable. Cars are therefore going to have to become more human-friendly and co-operate with their immediate environments more sensitively, as they are going to be in much closer proximity. This reinvention of shared space has several trends moving it along. The main one being a move away from an emphasis on vehicle speed, and a focus on giving back time. In other words, it’s the polar opposite of a Lamborghini. But it’s actually no less exciting and has just as much theatre about it. You don’t walk up to the 5.22 metre – that’s bigger than an S-Class – F 015, it drives itself to you, summoned via an app on your phone. Likewise, when you get out of it, it clears off and finds a parking space all on its own. The vast, articulated doors open like the cabin is pressurised (it’s not) – moving out before swinging wide to reveal a Jetsons-style travel capsule. This will remind Captain Scarlet fans of the SPV, a fictional 200mph, 25ft-long armoured vehicle in which the occupants faced the rear and viewed the world through drop-down TV screens. To everyone else, it’ll just remind them the future of luxury cars is going to look very, very different. In its resting setting, there are four Arne Jacobsen-style armchairs facing the front. They can be programmed to twist 30 degrees towards the doors to make getting in easier. And the front ones can be whirred through 180 degrees to face the rears. It’s in this configuration that we start our journey. Any one of the four occupants can ‘drive’ the F 015 by selecting the required destination via the large touchscreen next to each seat. Once this is accepted, the fuel-cell-powered pod glides away on its narrow – to keep the turning circle reasonable and minimise turning force – 26-inch 225 wheels and, within a few seconds, it feels completely natural to be chatting while watching the scenery stream by through the windows and on the screens, like you are on a train. Speed can be adjusted by moving a slider on any of the screens – and the electrically driven F 015 responds instantly. There is a steering wheel that telescopes out of the front dash – a Mercedes will always have a wheel, they say – if you decide to go old school and drive yourself, but the rest of the dashboard is a smart screen. This monitors your eye and hand positions. You look at what you want to adjust – temperature, radio channel, etc – then move your hand accordingly. And it works surprisingly well. As does the autonomous tech outside the car. A range of sensors monitors the surroundings and adjusts the car’s course and speed accordingly. When it detects a pedestrian, it stops and projects a zebra crossing in front of the car. It then verbally invites the walker to cross, monitoring them as they move. If the pedestrian decides not to cross in front of the car, the car can be waved on. The laser can also project other messages onto the road – to warn other road users of what is happening near or around the vehicle. It doesn’t, however, answer the burning question: if the F 015 can think like a human, could it have emotions and moods, too?