Very Smart Car

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2013

On this sparkling summer day at the Muskoka Airport, a general-aviation facility about 90 miles north of Toronto, a dummy wearing a wool sweater and a Halloween mask springs from behind a parked car on the runway and into the path of an oncoming sedan. The car’s Cross-Traffic Assist—without input from the driver—applies full braking force to avert a collision with the dummy.

On another section of the runway, drivers are instructed to pilot the sedan at 35 mph through a series of speed bumps that promise to have the car doing nosedives into the pavement. However, the car’s hyperbolically though aptly named Magic Body Control seems to liquefy the bumps, replacing the anticipated jolts with the sensation of driving through a puddle of molten Tarmac.

Inside the airport’s hangar a motorized mock-up of the sedan’s cabin whips around like a cup in the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland. Those who drove the sedan now take turns riding in the cabin so that they can experience the car’s Pre-Safe Plus, a collision-preparedness system that braces passengers for a crash or rollover.

Mercedes-Benz is staging this array of simulations and demonstrations to showcase some of the new gadgetry aboard the 2014 S550 sedan—the latest and sixth generation of the S-Class. These technologies and others compose what Mercedes-Benz calls Intelligent Drive. The company stops short of claiming that the S550 has a sentient brain, but as suggested by the term Intelligent Drive, the car can collect and evaluate information and respond accordingly. The S-Class—whose earlier generations were the debut production vehicles for air bags that worked in conjunction with motorized seat belts (in 1981) and Electronic Stability Control (in 1995)—is the first car to feature this level of autonomy.  ➤

The S550 arrived in U.S. showrooms in September. The car’s starting price had not yet been announced when Robb Report went to press, but it was expected to be around $95,000. In November, the S550 will be joined by the all-wheel-drive S550 4Matic and the high-performance S63 AMG 4Matic.A coupe and cabriolet are expected to follow.

The underpinnings for some of the Intelligent Drive features were available on the outgoing S-Class, but in the new model, the functionality and integration of the technologies have taken evolutionary jumps forward, thanks in part to the addition of optional cameras that survey the road ahead of the car. Positioned on either side of the rear-view mirror, the cameras scan the road for oncoming traffic, pedestrians, dummies dressed like Freddy Krueger, and other potential hazards so that it can command the brakes to engage before a collision. The cameras also seek out lesser irritations, such as poorly maintained roads, so that the air suspension can be informed in time to smooth things out. Radar sensors check blind spots for cars, bicycles, and other hidden objects, and also look behind the S550 to see whether any trailing cars pose a risk. In the European version of the S550, the Intelligent Drive system will attempt to prevent a rear-end collision by brightening the LED taillights to warn the approaching driver.

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