Silicon Valley is making waves with news about self-driving cars. But the most-advanced vehicles that consumers can actually buy today came out of Stuttgart.
When Mercedes-Benz debuted its new Intelligent Drive package of safety and driving-assistance systems last fall, it raised the bar for the rest of the industry.
The features on the 2014 S-class sedan are the most advanced in a production vehicle. And Mercedes-Benz appears likely to stay ahead of the competition for several years.
"When the S class debuted, I'd say they had a 30-month lead on the competition in terms of technology deployment," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific in Tustin, Calif. "There are similar systems out there, but not with this level of integration and sophistication.
"This skips a whole generation of S class -- it went into the future. It is 70 percent autonomous driving."
Competing carmakers offer some of the same assistance and safety features. But only Mercedes has integrated the sensors, controls and 36 separate technologies -- of which 11 are new or updated -- to work together in a bundle, which it calls Intelligent Drive. One Daimler executive said the system has been in the works for 15 years.
Probably the most advanced feature is traffic-jam assist, which rivals are scrambling to get into their vehicles. In congested traffic, a driver can let the car steer, brake and accelerate itself at speeds lower than 37 mph.
Combining the features to work together is the tricky part, says Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Sophistication is needed to integrate these features. ... They do seem to be ahead of the pack," Wallace said. "It is easier said than done."
Intelligent Drive includes systems to help prevent collisions, a pedestrian and animal recognition feature, lane keeping, parking assistance, rear-crash monitoring, crosswind stabilization, distance control, night vision and a suspension that automatically adjusts before the car hits an imperfection on the road.
Those technologies work with 12 ultrasonic and six radar sensors and up to eight cameras that monitor 360 degrees of the car. The data from the sensors and cameras are collected in a control unit that combines the inputs, churns algorithms and spits out vehicle commands in less than a second.
Available first on the S-class sedan as a $2,800 option, Intelligent Drive also is offered on the re-engineered 2014 E-class lineup. Much of the technology will trickle down to the redesigned 2015 C-class sedan that goes on sale in the fall. Some features are even available on the smaller B-class Electric Drive that went on sale last month.
Despite the groundbreaking system, consumer reaction has been muted. That's because the features are so new, say dealers and experts.
The take rate on Intelligent Drive for the S-class sedan is 50 percent. It falls to 15 percent for the E class.
Christoph von Hugo, senior manager for active safety at Daimler AG, Mercedes' parent company, said consumers who try the system are often overwhelmed: "We see that it may take a while for people to recognize the benefit. Some are reluctant in the beginning."
AutoNation, the country's largest retailer of Mercedes vehicles, said the Intelligent Drive features draw customers. But its executives agree that there's a learning curve.
"The car is loaded with the technology that promotes ultimate safety. Once properly presented, it's a game changer," said an executive who did not want to be identified. "Most impressive vehicle I have seen yet."
AutoNation sells 10 percent of all Mercedes vehicles sold in the United States.
For Mercedes, having this edge is a competitive weapon in the luxury segment, where quality, gadgets and horsepower are no longer significant differentiators.
"It is the most significant step in the automotive industry towards autonomous driving," Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, said in a recent interview.
AutoPacific's Sullivan agrees: "The integration of all those features and getting them to talk to each other is as close as you can get to autonomous driving -- they have integrated them into one."
"No one has something like that yet," he said, adding Hyundai with its new Genesis is the closest but the competition is probably three years behind, he said.
Egil Juliussen, director of research infotainment and advanced driver assistance at IHS Automotive in suburban Detroit, said Mercedes has the first system that combines active cruise control, automatic braking and lane-keeping assist.
It's also the first brand with traffic-jam assist. Other brands plan similar features; Audi, for instance, has said it will have a traffic-jam function on the redesigned A8 flagship, due in 2017.
Mercedes, General Motors, Nissan, Google and Volvo all have said they will have a self-driving car on the road by 2020.
However, there has been a dialing back of expectations. Last month, Nissan Motor Corp. CEO Carlos Ghosn, whose company made waves last year by pledging to develop autonomous cars by 2020, cooled the rhetoric.
Now, Ghosn said, Nissan will focus on intermediate steps. It will match Mercedes' traffic-jam assist in 2016 and deploy its auto-parking feature across a wide range of vehicles.
Mercedes experts say the biggest challenge is getting accurate sensor information and designing a system to react nearly instantly.
"Intelligent Drive is a very comprehensive and advanced driver-assistance system based on a vast amount of sensor information," said von Hugo. "Designing algorithms and functions that make use of this data in real time to analyze the vehicle's surroundings and to react correspondingly when needed was certainly a major challenge for our engineers."
Von Hugo said the integration reflects more than 15 years of r&d, data from "millions of miles" of field testing and maneuvering by driving experts. The result: "complex and ingenious technology" masked by intuitive controls and integrated functions, he said.
Annoying vs. helpful
And that ease of use is what sets Mercedes apart, said experts. Sullivan of AutoPacific has said that Mercedes is adept at "walking that fine line of annoying and helpful."
"The problem is integrating [features] and not making them feel artificial or overly eager to correct," Sullivan said. "When they become obtrusive is when people get annoyed.
Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, a publication that brutally criticized the new Mercedes CLA compact, said as an integrated package, "My experience to date is the Mercedes-Benz system was the most impressive where it follows along and steers with you."
That capability -- allowing the car to follow the vehicle ahead, brake and go gently around curves -- is a highlight of the Intelligent Drive system. But the system includes a broad suite of advanced features.
For instance, Mercedes' Magic Body Control suspension system uses two cameras in the windshield to look ahead for bumps, potholes and other road imperfections. The suspension is adjusted before the wheels hit uneven road conditions.
"Magic Body Control is moving the needle in way that we haven't seen, that people have been dreaming about in the engineering world," said Sullivan.
Von Hugo says that Mercedes considers steering assist to be the most innovative feature. It works with the adaptive cruise control; front-mounted stereoscopic cameras and radar detect lane markings even at high speeds and pass that information to the central computing unit and steering system.
"The steering system issues little steering inputs to keep the car centered in the middle of the lane," von Hugo said. "If you start swerving in the lane, the car does minor corrections to keep you centered. It works on the highway and in slight bends."
Even if the driver can't see the lane markings, the system will watch the lanes and car ahead and accelerate, slow down and steer.
Von Hugo said the use of more and better sensors makes Mercedes' technology cutting edge: "It gives us almost a 360-degree view around the car, and we analyze that information to come up with steps."
The sensors process the information within milliseconds, passing it on to the computer unit, which performs algorithms that decide what the vehicle will do within a 10th of a second.
The goal is "to assist the driver but not override him," he said. "We always try to give the driver a chance. You do not want to warn right away. We do not want to annoy the driver. The driver needs a chance to react."
Cannon said the system is a step toward Mercedes' goal of "accident free driving."
He said: "It will make drivers better. It will respond to situations more quickly, and it will reduce accidents."
Other technologies in Intelligent Drive include:
Distronic Plus cruise control with steering assist that works up to 124 mph.
Pre-Safe braking that works up to 31 mph whether or not the driver steps on the brake. It can partially mitigate accidents up to 45 mph.
An updated attention-assist feature that monitors when the driver is tired. It is linked to the car's navigation system, and using that data, it can tell the driver where coffee and fuel are available.
Radar in the rear can detect whether a vehicle is closing in too quickly. Rear signal lights are flashed automatically to catch the attention of the approaching car. If that driver doesn't react, the Mercedes Pre-Safe system is activated: It closes windows and adjusts seats upright. Brakes are applied so the car stands firmly. "Tests have shown you can decrease the danger of having whiplash by 30 percent," von Hugo said.
The combination of these features gives Mercedes the edge, von Hugo said.
"It gives you an idea of what autonomous driving will feel like in the future," he said. "We already have it on the street."