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Out of the Driver’s Seat

A look into the future of luxury automobiles...


Luxury automakers may eventually be telling car owners, “Leave the driving to us.”

On a stage at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Dieter Zetsche, the head of Mercedes-Benz’s car division and the chairman of parent company Daimler, spoke about the future of luxury automobiles. “Cars will turn into mobile homes in the very best sense of the word,” he said. “They will be exclusive cocoons on wheels that enable people to do exactly what they want or need to do. This is the redefinition of automotive luxury.”

On cue, the Mercedes-Benz concept vehicle known as the F 015 Luxury in Motion joined Zetsche, driving itself onto the stage. Measuring slightly more than 17 feet long, just over 6.5 feet wide, and 5 feet tall, the car is no more imposing than the brand’s S550 sedan. But the vehicle’s unusually long wheelbase and unbroken line from headlights to taillights give it a futuristic look. “Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” Zetsche continued. “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

The F 015 features front seats that can pivot 180 degrees to face the rear seats, creating the type of club seating found on a business jet or passenger train. When the front seats are facing forward and the manual-driving mode is selected, a steering wheel extends from the dashboard. LED lights on the grille glow blue when the vehicle is driving autonomously and white when a person is behind the wheel.

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“Autonomous driving is one of the greatest innovations since the invention of the motorcar,” says Thomas Weber, the head of Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. “Drivers are re­­lieved of work and stress in situations in which driving is not enjoyable, and the time gained while in their car takes on a whole new quality.”

“It is private space and time, and those are the two things that autonomous driving gives us,” adds Bart Herring, the general manager of product management for Mercedes-Benz USA. “There are few things that return time to you. [The F 015] is the ultimate expression of where we think things could go. It’s really us saying to the industry, ‘You need to think of autonomous driving in a bigger way than you are now; you can’t think of such a game-changing piece of technology by using the same delivery of that technology that you use today.’ ”

If the F 015 ever evolves into a production car, it will take more than a decade, but auto manufacturers have already laid the foundation for self-driving vehicles. In addition to building the F 015, Mercedes-Benz produces current models with safety systems that enable the vehicles to automatically adjust for upcoming road surfaces and slow down or stop to avoid collisions. Lexus and Audi are also investing in autonomous-driving technology and implementing automated systems that make vehicles safer, and Porsche is experimenting with technology that will drive cars more efficiently than humans normally would.

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The idea of a self-driving car dates to at least 1958, when General Motors introduced the Firebird III. It was one of the so-called “Dream Cars,” the flamboyant concept vehicles that GM built mainly to draw crowds to its Motorama auto shows, where the company’s current models were also on display. The Firebird III was designed with side fins and tail fins that made it look like a fighter jet. Branded “an experiment for tomorrow,” it was equipped with a center console joystick that controlled acceleration, braking, and steering. It also included an automatic guidance system that relied on two pickup coils mounted under the front of the car. The coils were designed to straddle a “car-carrying” wire embedded in the highway. A nationwide network of wire-embedded roadways never materialized, so the car never drove on its own. However, the same year that the Firebird III debuted, the first production cars equipped with cruise control rolled onto showroom floors.

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Today, some luxury cars are equipped with advanced adaptive cruise-control systems that enable a degree of self-driving. Each Lexus LS model (LS 460, LS 460 F Sport, and LS 600h L) has a system that uses radar to read the movement of the car ahead in slow-moving and stop-and-go traffic and accordingly slows or stops the Lexus. A lane-keep assist program (also developed by Toyota, Lexus’s parent company) employs a camera system that can detect when the vehicle is starting to veer out of its lane and enables it to steer itself back on course. “Lane assist and cruise control are two separate systems,” explains Hideki Hada, the general manager of integrated vehicle systems for Toyota/Lexus, “but if we combine those two, you can see that automated driving already exists in production vehicles.”

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Hada is also involved in the development of the company’s Automated Highway Driving Assist system, which the company debuted on a prototype Lexus GS Hybrid late last year. The system is a combination of three programs—Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Trace Control, and Predictive & Interactive Human Machine Interface—and is intended to help drivers keep the car a safe distance from other vehicles when traveling at highway speeds. It is also designed to monitor the driver’s focus and will send an alert if it detects prolonged periods when the driver’s eyes are not open or on the road, or when the driver’s hands are not on the steering wheel. “Distinction be­tween driverless and automated-driving technology is very important,” Hada says. “We don’t want to eliminate the driver from the driving path.”

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In January, Audi eliminated the driver for the majority of a 560-mile trip when it sent an A7 equipped with its piloted-driving technology from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas for the electronics tradeshow. The car drove itself on well-marked divided highways and at standard interstate speeds, though a driver remained behind the wheel at all times. When in piloted-driving mode, the car retracts the steering wheel several inches—literally taking it out of the driver’s hands—and, using numerous cameras and sensors, it follows traffic, changes lanes, and passes vehicles on its own. “That was an important milestone to show that the technology can control itself and recognize the cars around it at high speeds,” says Brad Stertz, Audi of America’s corporate communications manager. “It didn’t need a car in front of it, which has been a requirement up until now.”

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The Society of Automotive Engineers recognizes five stages of automated driving. Stage 1 involves vehicles with standard assistance programs, such as adaptive cruise control. In stage 2, these programs interact with one another, but the driver must still monitor the driving environment. Stage 3, which includes the technology used by Audi’s A7 test car, also involves connected driver-assistance systems, but the car can drive itself at faster speeds and will also monitor the driving environment. In stage 4, a car can drive itself and can react appropriately if a human operator does not respond to the car’s request for the driver to take control. Stage 5 represents a fully autonomous vehicle, one that does not require a human operator in the driver’s seat. According to Stertz, only New York state laws, which require one hand on the wheel at all times, stand in the way of stage 3 technology being implemented in future production vehicles. The bigger question is how the U.S. government will react to the development of fully autonomous cars. “Almost since the dawn of the horseless carriage, the state has always regulated the behavior of the [human] driver, and the federal government has regulated the vehicle and its safety,” he says. “Now the machine is the driver, and that’s where it gets complicated.”

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Porsche is also experimenting with automated-driving technology. Its focus is on platforms that will maximize the car’s performance. The adaptive cruise-control system that Porsche calls InnoDrive uses GPS, speed-limit data, and other factors to determine when the car should accelerate or brake—independent of the driver’s input. “If you’re going through the mountains, there will be turns that will look slower than they actually are,” says Calvin Kim, a product experience manager for Porsche Cars North America. “The computer knows the radius of the turn and what’s around the other side of the ridge, [and if it is safe to do so] the car won’t slow down at all. Human instinct would be to drop the speed a few miles an hour. InnoDrive says, ‘No, keep the speed and the momentum preserved.’ We’re not doing this to make cars easier to drive, but so that the performance of the cars can be better accessed.”

Porsche, which most recently tested this technology last year in a Panamera prototype, plans to continue experimenting, but it has no intention of unseating the driver. “At the end of the day, we’re a sports-car company,” Kim says. “You buy a Porsche because you want to drive the car.”

Audi, audiusa.com; Lexus, lexus.com; Mercedes-Benz, mbusa.com; Porsche, porsche.com

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