The German Federal Motor Transport Authority (Kraftfahrbundesamt KBA) granted Mercedes Benz permission to offer a driving assistant in its vehicles that, when used under certain conditions, allows drivers to watch movies, work on e-mails or perform other activities, with one exception: they are not allowed to sleep.
This makes this system, known as the Drive Pilot, in Mercedes S and EQS vehicles the first in the world to receive approval as a Level 3 system. Is this a sign of the technological leadership of German automotive companies?
What is this level system, anyway? The classification of the degree of automation of vehicles defined (and often criticized) by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) starts at level 0 (a human driver has to do everything) and ends at level 5 (there is no driver anymore and the vehicle can solve all situations on all ways by itself). To make this easier to remember for the levels we are currently talking about, here is a little reminder:
Level 2: Hands off – I can take my hands off the wheel, but must be ready to take the wheel again at any time;
Level 3: Eyes off – I can now take my eyes off the road and let them wander elsewhere for a longer period of time, but I have to be ready to take the wheel again at any time;
Level 4: Minds off – I can get on with other things and not expect to take the wheel;
However, the KBA has attached restrictions to the Mercedes Drive Pilot’s approval. For example, this function may only be used up to a maximum speed of 60 km/h on highway-like roads, and it must stay in its lane. It is suitable for slow driving in heavy traffic and traffic jams. This permission now allows a driver to do just about anything else without this being seen as a reason to have committed a traffic offense.
I’m writing this having just returned from a 250-kilometer drive in California at a speed of about 100 mph with Tesla Autopilot (which is not to be confused with Tesla’s Full Self Driving feature), which I had turned on to keep it in lane and distance, dutifully making its passing maneuvers without my intervention while I looked at the scenery and – yes – checked the occasional e-mail. Except that every 15 seconds or so, the system prompted me to briefly touch the steering wheel to indicate that I was still “paying attention”.
Other manufacturers also already offer such functions, and it was repeatedly pointed out to me that BMW, Mercedes, Japanese manufacturers, etc. also have lane-keeping functions and the like already in series production. In this case, the driver’s attention always had to remain on the traffic so that control could be taken over. Other occupations that diverted attention from the road were not allowed.
Welche aktuellen Ängste prägen uns? Mit welchen Ängsten waren die Menschen in der Vergangenheit konfrontiert, als es die heutigen Technologien noch nicht gab? Warum mischen wir heute im Wettbewerb der Kulturen um neue Technologien nicht ganz vorne mit? Welche Maßnahmen müssen wir ergreifen, um neue Technologien nicht als etwas Beängstigendes und Feindseliges zu betrachten, sondern als ein Mittel zur Lösung der großen Probleme der Menschheit?
This means that this approval is not so much a technical as a legal feat. And that is not to be underestimated. If I interpret this correctly, it is a sign of how cautiously the authority is acting. The “precautionary principle” that prevails in Europe, whereby the dangers and risks of new technologies are first analyzed at greater length and in greater detail than the opportunities and possibilities, comes to the fore here.
Malicious tongues claim that the KBA just gave the approval to Mercedes Benz because the company
- is a domestic one (and not an evil one from America or China, which can be exhausting for an authority because of their demands)
- has a reputation for safety and caution, and
- if such a feature is now hitting even Mercedes, the technology must be mature;
Who cares about level 3 when there are already level 4 robotaxi fleets elsewhere?
While Mercedes Benz joins the company in celebrating the country’s first legally approved Level 3 vehicle on the road, 10,000 kilometers away, several fleets of robot taxis, some without safety drivers on board, are in commercial service. This is equivalent to Level 4 of SAE’s autonomy levels.
Today, there are already 1,400 autonomous vehicles on the road in California, either in testing or in commercial use, operated by currently 53 companies with the approval of the California DMV. Seven of these companies are even allowed – under restrictions – to operate the vehicles on public roads without a safety driver.
As many as three fleets of robot taxis are in operation. Two from Waymo, one from Cruise. Two of them in San Francisco, one of them in a suburb of Phoenix in Arizona. And I’m not even mentioning companies like Baidu, AutoX, or Pony, which also operate robotaxi fleets in Shenzhen, Guangzho, or Beijing in a slightly different approach. Each of these fleets includes at least a hundred vehicles.
And we’re hearing that Waymo has begun mapping cities like New York or the entire greater Phoenix area. Cruise is also targeting the start of operations for two more fleets of robotaxis next year.
Not only that: several manufacturers, such as Nuro, Cruise, Zoox, Canoo, Navya, Easymile or Einride are working on completely new types of vehicles where there is no longer a driver’s seat or cab. Nuro with refrigerator-sized delivery robots that drive on roads, Cruise with the Origin, Zoox and Canoo with a similar vehicle in which the four to five passengers sit opposite each other as in a train compartment and the vehicle can travel in both directions, Navya and Earymile with a bus-like shuttle or the Einride T-Pod, which as a truck no longer has a driver’s cab, show where the direction is going. And it’s not only driverless, it’s also no longer owner-operated, but wholly owned.
Mercedes Benz here only extrapolates the previous model of cars owned by individuals and parked outside their own homes or offices for 23 hours a day. Between 2030 and 2035, however, it is expected that the majority of all kilometers driven will be done by robotic vehicles in the sharing model.
So let’s keep our feet on the ground. The KBA approval of the Drive Pilot function is certainly a legal success. Technically, it rather shows the backlog and the ambition level of German (and also other) manufacturers. Just like a few months ago, when Germany celebrated being the first country to allow autonomous driving nationwide, celebrating having the best referee in the world, but overlooking the fact that you don’t have any teams, and only with them you have a chance to become world champion, this news is to be seen as well.
Here they are celebrating that the regulator has approved the better combustion engine, while the rest of the world has already switched to electric drive. Here, Mercedes (and Germany) is celebrating Level 3 approval, while the actual technology leaders already have Level 4 in use with the corresponding approvals from the authorities. Only a limited reason to rejoice, rather a call: Roll up your sleeves and keep working.
This article was also published in German.