Mercedes-Benz's Pricey SAE Level 3 Self-Driving System Makes Very Little Sense

Mercedes-Benz reached an important milestone: its advanced driver-assistance system known as Drive Pilot is finally available in two states – California and Nevada. It can take over the car completely in certain conditions, and that makes it a SAE J3016 Level 3 system. But should you give it a try? Here are the details that will help you make the right decision.
Mercedes-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot 10 photos
Photo: Mercedes-Benz / autoevolution edit
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The automotive industry seems to have collectively decided that we need self-driving cars as soon as possible. Everyone's in a rush to make systems that can replace the driver. Mercedes-Benz is a luxury automaker with a long, long history. It invented the car. That's how old and important it is. As such, it couldn't allow itself the comfort of not being among the pioneers. But it might not be worth it for the customer.

But first, let's look at the facts. Mercedes-Benz started selling Drive Pilot-equipped cars last year in Germany. Prior to the official launch of the system, we got a sneak peek and told you that the brand made a serious move by (hesitantly) confirming it would accept liability.

Now, that same system is becoming available for the first time in the US. California and Nevada already approved it, and it'll soon be put on two sedans – the S-Class and the EQS.

So, what's Drive Pilot? It's an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) that has the capability to transform the car into an autonomous vehicle. It can take care of everything, allowing the driver to play games, watch a short clip, or simply take their eyes off the road. However, it works only when certain conditions are met, and you will be asked to take over whenever the system deems the parameters as unsafe.

Mercedes\-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot
Photo: Mercedes-Benz

There are levels to this game

That's why it's a Level 3 J3016 ADAS. Robotaxis like what Cruise and Waymo deployed in some cities are Level 4 because they don't need a human in the driver's seat and work in predefined or limited environments. Somewhat similar are Mercedes-Benz's and BMW's automated valet parking systems launched in Germany. If your German car has the required hardware and software, it can park itself at qualifying locations.

The highest level of driving automation – Level 5 – has not been achieved. It'll take a while before a vehicle will not come with a steering wheel. Zoox and Cruise already have such machines ready, but they're still not fully autonomous.

Drive Pilot offers "conditionally automated driving with internationally valid type approval," per Mercedes-Benz. In non-corporate mumbo-jumbo, that means the EQS and S-Class will be able to completely drive themselves at up to speeds of 40 mph on some freeway sections and only during high traffic density. Thus, it cannot be activated when you're alone on the road. It also doesn't work at night or when it pours.

See the Level 3 pattern? That's why it's not a fully autonomous driving system yet. Certain requirements must be met so it can work. Plus, it wants you to take over when it can't handle the situation at hand any longer.

Mercedes\-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
Unlike other automakers (i.e., Tesla), Mercedes-Benz uses cameras, LiDAR, microphones, and a moisture sensor. Those are extras included in the price of Drive Pilot.

Three-pointed star shenanigans

The system is built on top of the Driver Assistance Package, which includes radars and ultrasonic sensors.

It also has a ton of features like an active speed limit (recognizes traffic signs and automatically adjusts the speed so you won't get a ticket), traffic jam assistance with automatic restart on highways, blind spot detection, emergency stop, cross-traffic detection with brake assist (stops by itself when you back out of a parking space and don't see an oncoming vehicle), pedestrian warning near marked crosswalks, and even a function that can take preventive measure to avoid a rear-end collision.

If all those features are insufficient and you want to make your pricey S-Class or EQS even more capable, Drive Pilot is the final step. It costs $2,500 to activate. After it's turned on, you'll have to pay a subscription to keep it. Mercedes-Benz didn't specify what type of periodical payment it envisioned. It could be yearly; it could be monthly. We weren't told. We checked the automaker's digital shop, and the option to activate and subscribe to Drive Pilot was not available when writing.

Mercedes\-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
It could also mean that customers will have to pay $2,500 every year, which doesn't sound very reasonable. We'll see what's what when the option is made available to owners.

The carmaker argues that a subscription allows customers to give up on Drive Pilot when they leave California or Nevada for longer periods.

Cool, but not groundbreaking

Nonetheless, that doesn't sound very good. Why should the customer pay a fee for something that only works when the subscription is on? Either make it a one-time payment or a subscription-based offering, Mercedes-Benz! That's how you make it right.

However, the problem at hand is that the Germans use more hardware than a competitor like Tesla. As such, the customer is paying for extra goodies like the wetness sensor in the wheel well.

The world's most valuable automaker moved to a camera-only (Tesla Vision) system, and it's found on every new car that comes out of the factory. It's the software that enables everything. You don't need extra hardware. However, Tesla's ADAS is still at Level 2, whereas Mercedes-Benz's can sometimes be at Level 3. It's not much, but it's honest work.

Mercedes\-Benz EQS with Drive Pilot
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
Still, there's no way I can argue in favor of Drive Pilot. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather option my Mercedes-Benz with the Driver Assistance Package and call it a day than pay for having a sort of autonomous vehicle on some occasions. It's not really worth that much for the everyday driver or enjoyer of what the Stuttgart-based luxury marque can offer on its high-end cars. Nobody really needs a car to drive itself just when it suits it.

Moreover, why sit in the driver's seat and watch a computer do my job sometimes when I, the S-Class owner, can just hire a professional to take me from meeting to meeting or from home to my jet?

But nobody can say that Mercedes-Benz isn't making a ton of progress and retaining that pioneer attitude. Tesla might be popular with its FSD Beta, but the German automaker is proving once again that when a serious brand starts developing something, it has a clear path ahead, enough resources, and a ton of determination to succeed without causing much controversy.

Well done, Mercedes-Benz! Take the wheel! But watch out for those pesky people at General Motors and Ford. They like to cruise!

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About the author: Florin Amariei
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Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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