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Wait, how many new features?

The new CLA compact -- Mercedes promises more features than ever before.
UPDATED: 2/21/13 4:13 pm ET

At a Mercedes-Benz product and technology briefing yesterday, I had my latest new-reality shock, startled by the techno near-future because I hadn't updated assumptions for, golly, weeks.

We all know that world-sideways instant, when chatting with an old friend that you exclaim, "Wait, little Jane is how old?" You can see that your ex-neighbor has aged in 20 years. The surprise is learning that the toddler you last remember bouncing on your knee just graduated from the Naval Academy.

Similarly, when Mercedes-Benz USA product planners were detailing the latest features they'll add on three new products this year, it wasn't the technology that struck me. We all know automobiles carry lots of electronic sensors and controls. We recognize that combining different ones yields new features.

Nor was it that Mercedes has coined "Intelligent Drive" as an umbrella term for all the safety and convenience features it creates with software and mix-and-match sensor-control combinations. Top U.S. product planner Bart Herring calls it a brand differentiator. I call it clever marketing.

Nope. The shock was the Intelligent Drive list itself -- 36 technologies with 11 of them new or updated -- and a realization.

That once-slow process of deriving multiple fresh applications from add-on hardware? It just hit the afterburners with the new CLA, 2014 E class and S class.

I have always been a fan of electronic controls. You don't have to use your shirttail to wipe condensed water from the inside of too many distributor caps to appreciate solid state car ignition.

It took years to make antilock braking systems universal. But once you had paid to add the wheel-rotation sensors, brake actuators and computing power to make ABS work, electronic stability control was just a couple of accelerometers away.

Lots of tech features are possible with existing controls and sensors. In many ways, the hardest part is choosing the features that help drivers and also are easy to use. It's not easy to keep from overloading drivers with features. Ask BMW or Ford.

Like many other premium vehicles, Mercedes models already have lots of sensors and controls, including engine controls, GPS, ABS, short-, medium- and long-range radar, single and stereo cameras, ultrasound and infrared.

I think the coolest new features can come when existing systems tap into additional systems or data streams.

Inside the new E-class sedan. Photo credit: MERCEDES

Mercedes already had Attention Assist, which alerted drivers when the system sensed they were distracted. This year, the system added a fifth mode, "sensitive," if it detected the driver was tired. And because it has now tapped into the navigation system, it also can suggest taking a break, like at the exit up ahead that has the driver's favorite coffee shop or brand of gasoline.

But nobody wants to make car buyers fret about losing driver control.

That's why Mercedes offers two levels of braking assistance. The base level offers a warning, but the driver must touch the brake pedal before the system will assist. The higher level will brake to a stop automatically if it detects a pedestrian or obstruction, even if the driver ignores the warning. Drivers can choose which level.

More subtly, the updated Distronic Plus feature not only reads lane markers and warns drivers if the car is about to drift out of the lane but now actively adds steering torque to keep the car centered in the lane, even on gently bending roads. The driver can override the system if he wishes.

Herring says autos are getting more sophisticated than the road infrastructure. The car can read painted lane markers. But if it snows, the road has no backup system.

"We're 70 to 80 percent of the way to autonomous driving" on vehicle hardware, Herring says.

What's left? Upgrading the transportation infrastructure, for sure. Plus lots of software programming and endless amounts of validation.

But we have a glimpse of the future. I can't wait.

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