Behind Mercedes' bold demo on road to autonomous driving

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche claps as he introduces a Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive automobile at the Frankfurt auto show. Photo credit: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

FRANKFURT -- There's been a lot of lofty talk lately among automakers vowing to market autonomous cars -- some by 2020.

Mercedes-Benz threw down another gauntlet this week at the Frankfurt auto show when it demonstrated a car that has already been "self-piloted."

The S500 "Intelligent Drive" research car drove autonomously along a 62-mile route in August from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany, Mercedes boldly announced.

The symbolic demonstration retraced the route once navigated in 1888 by Bertha Benz, the wife of Carl Benz, who developed and patented the first self-propelled motor vehicle in 1886.

An engineer sat behind the wheel during the test only to meet legal requirements, said Thomas Weber, Mercedes-Benz board member for research and development.

Mercedes-Benz engineers said they plan to put an autonomous vehicle on the market by 2020 -- at the latest.

But there are significant regulatory and technology hurdles to overcome.

To show the company's confidence in the technology, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche was driven around during the company's press conference at the Frankfurt auto show in the back seat of the research S500.

No one sat in the front seats.

The research vehicle ran half the route on country roads and the other half through cities and villages, stopping automatically at traffic lights, maneuvering roundabouts and stopping at pedestrian crossings and stop signs -- and avoided hitting a person, animal or object, Weber said.

The test car used technology already available on the 2014 model year E-class sedan and the redesigned, flagship S-class sedan that goes on sale next month.

The production cars use stereo cameras, radar and ultrasonic technology for semi-autonomous stop-and-go driving.

A navigation system, dubbed Route Pilot, allowed the sedan to find its way safely to the destination on unrestricted, public roads.

It was also equipped with long-range radars to detect oncoming vehicles and a stereo camera with two lenses set apart to function like human eyes to detect distant objects.

In addition, the S500 research car was equipped with two more long-range cameras. A front color camera behind the windshield tracked traffic lights. One in the rear monitored objects and landmarks stored in a digital map and was used for positioning, Weber said.

To bring the technology to market, more-precise navigation maps are needed -- they simply aren't yet available.

"GPS is a military-based system, but only for the military is it really precise," said Weber.

For the test run, Mercedes developed precise maps of the 60-mile round with partner Nokia, said Weber.

"We also need improved chips and computer power that can process more data in a shorter time."

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at -- Follow Diana T. on Twitter: @dianakurylko

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