Mercedes-Benz showed what the future holds by retracing its own history in 2013: The highly automated Mercedes-Benz S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE research vehicle completed the route from Mannheim to Pforzheim – through cities and along country roads. This made Mercedes-Benz the world’s first automotive manufacturer to show how automated driving could be possible, even in complex traffic zones.
This is an important step in a long history of development as there are much earlier examples of automated cars driving in relatively manageable motorway traffic. One such project was undertaken at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in the 1980s. Success arrived in 1994 when two S-Class Saloons from model series 140 used as test vehicles achieved speeds of up to 130 km/h in automated mode on the motorway.
The S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE research vehicle can now find its way fully autonomously, even in heavy urban and cross-country traffic. What is astonishing is that similar systems were available in the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class models in 2013. This was emphasised by Dr Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, at the 2013 International Motor Show in Frankfurt (IAA): “This S-Class shows where we want to go with Intelligent Drive and the great potential that lies in the technology already available today.”
The route selected for the highly automated drive had a special significance as it followed the historical journey undertaken by Bertha Benz in 1888. Back then, the wife of inventor of the automobile Carl Benz completed the first long-distance drive in the history of the motor car. 125 years later, this historical background led to the S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE being nicknamed “ Bertha”. But Intelligent Drive is not just the name of the research vehicle, it is also the title for the new Mercedes-Benz safety philosophy aimed at networking all in-car driver assistance and safety systems, finally merging comfort and safety together. Mercedes-Benz introduced important Intelligent Drive functions as early as 2013, including new solutions as well as enhanced versions of existing assistance systems:
- DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist makes it easier for the driver to stay in lane and masters automatic driving in traffic jams.
- BAS PLUS with Cross-Traffic Assist can for the first time also detect crossing traffic and pedestrians, and assist the driver with braking.
- The PRE-SAFE® Brake detects pedestrians and can prevent a collision by means of autonomous braking up to a speed of 50 km/h.
- PRE-SAFE® PLUS can now detect an imminent rear collision. In this case, the system triggers anticipatory, reversible occupant protection measures and can keep the vehicle braked in the event of a rear collision thus helping to prevent secondary accidents.
- PRE-SAFE® Impulse acts in the early phase of a frontal collision by having the seat belts pull the front occupants deeper into their seats. At the point when the highest load is exerted, this movement is reversed in a controlled manner. In this way, PRE-SAFE® Impulse can reduce the risk of injury significantly.
- Active Lane Keeping Assist can detect oncoming traffic and vehicles in an adjacent lane and then prevent unintentional lane departure by applying the brakes on one side of the vehicle.
- Adaptive Highbeam Assist Plus allows high beam to remain switched on without dazzling other drivers by masking out other vehicles in the high-beam light cone.
- In the event of danger due to pedestrians or animals in unlit surroundings ahead of the vehicle, Night View Assist Plus can automatically switch the speedo display to a brilliant night view image that highlights the sources of danger in order to warn the driver. Detected pedestrians can be flashed using a spotlight function.
- ATTENTION ASSIST can operate in an extended speed range to warn the driver of inattention and drowsiness as well as inform the driver of his or her level of tiredness and time at the wheel since the last break. It features an adjustable sensitivity level.
The sensors that supply the data for these functions form a closely linked in-car network. One particularly important component is the Stereo Multi Purpose Camera (SMPC), which Mercedes-Benz introduced at the same time as Intelligent Drive. It records crossing objects and pedestrians three-dimensionally because its two camera ‘eyes’ allow three-dimensional vision. This visual awareness is augmented by a series of radars and ultrasonic sensors.
The safety experts at Mercedes-Benz develop and test the new safety systems on countless test drives. They also gauge the effectiveness and acceptance of these systems with ‘human guinea pigs’ on an in-house “Moving Base” simulator. With its 360-degree screen, fast electric drive and twelve-metre long rail for lateral and longitudinal movements, this is one of the most powerful and effective simulators in the automotive industry.
Driving into the future
The history of digital assistance systems began at Mercedes-Benz in 1978. This development gathered more and more momentum as the decades passed. Today this technological journey into the future is more powerful and diversified than ever before.
It is not just the number of individual solutions that is increasing. They are also becoming increasingly effective and networked with each other. The intensive work required for this is performed in the a-drive (research focus autonomous driving) and i-protect (research focus integral safety) tech centres established by Daimler in 2016 among other places. This work centres on research into sensors and digital decision-making processes for autonomous driving, for example. At the i-protect tech centre, the Stuttgart carmaker is joined by other partners such as Bosch, the universities of Stuttgart, Freiburg, Dresden and Graz, the Fraunhofer Society, and the Stuttgart Clinical Centre.
The next dimension in driver support
The future of autonomous driving came a big step closer in 2016 thanks to increasingly intelligent cars: Mercedes-Benz unveiled further systems that herald a new dimension in driver support available from the car under the banner “Intelligent Drive Next Level”. The system network premiered in Mercedes-Benz E-Class model series 213 (combined fuel consumption 10.8-4.3 l/100 km, combined CO2 emissions 246-118 g/km*). Further solutions followed in S-Class model series 222 in autumn 2017.
The new generation of assistance systems not only operates with further improved camera and radar sensors, it also includes map and navigation data directly in the calculation of driving characteristics for the first time at Mercedes-Benz. One aspect of importance to the driver is the fact that he or she can always see at a glance which functions are active and to which situations the systems are currently responding. Unambiguous icons on the screen and in the Head-up Display are among the features used to provide this feedback. Any driver input required is via the steering wheel. The system network includes the following functions among others:
- As part of the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC, the route-based speed adaptation reduces the programmed speed as an anticipatory measure before bends, junctions, roundabouts or toll stations before accelerating again. Before turning off at exits or junctions, too, the speed adaptation decelerates according to requirements and depending on the selected driving program. This makes automated driving for longer periods a reality on country roads. On highways and motorways, the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC controls the distance to the vehicle in front in the speed range from 0 to 210 km/h and keeps the lane.
- Active Lane Change Assist provides support when the driver wants to change lanes on multi-lane roads in the speed range from 80 to 180 km/h. In response to tapping of the direction indicator, the sensor system in addition to the driver checks whether the adjacent lane is clear in front of, beside and behind the vehicle, taking account of the speed of other vehicles. If there is no other vehicle in the relevant safety zone, the vehicle helps the driver to change lane.
- Active Speed Limit Assist in conjunction with COMAND Online uses cameras to check speed limits, including on sign gantries and signs at road works. Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC complies with the detected speed limits autonomously.
- When driving in traffic jams in stop-and-go traffic on motorways and motorway-style roads, stops of up to 30 seconds are now possible before the vehicle starts off again automatically and follows the traffic in front.
- Active Emergency Stop Assist can brake the vehicle up to a standstill in its own lane if it detects that the driver is no longer intervening when Active Steering Assist is activated.
- On the road, the Active Brake Assist with cross-traffic function can help the driver to avoid impending collisions with stationary vehicles, vehicles in front or vehicles or people crossing in front if the driver shows no sign of averting the dangerous situation. There is then a distance warning, an additional audible warning when the risk of a collision is detected, and autonomous emergency braking to avoid collisions with vehicles or pedestrians. As soon as the driver applies the brakes, he or she receives braking assistance appropriate to the situation.
- Evasive Steering Assist can assist the driver with evasive manoeuvres if pedestrians are detected in the danger zone ahead of the vehicle. When the driver initiates the evasive manoeuvre, the system applies additional steering torque in this direction. This helps the driver to evade the pedestrian in a controlled manner and stabilise the vehicle on the evasive course.
- Active Lane Keeping Assist can warn the driver against unintentional lane departure in the speed range from 60 to 200 km/h by means of pulsed steering wheel vibrations and bring the vehicle back into its lane after it crosses a continuous line by braking the vehicle on one side. If it crosses a broken line, this intervention only takes place if there is a risk of a collision in the adjacent lane – due to oncoming traffic, for example.
- In the speed range from around 10 to 200 km/h, Active Blind Spot Assist can warn the driver of side collisions with other vehicles, including bicycles, visually and, if the direction indicators are activated, also audibly. Furthermore, at a speed above 30 km/h, automatic one-sided braking can help to prevent a side collision at the last moment.
- Through image recognition and information on the navigation system’s digital map, Traffic Sign Assist determines the permitted top speed and no-overtaking zones for the current section of the route as well as zebra crossings. Additional limit signs such as speed limits in wet weather or speed limits that apply to trucks only are taken into account individually.
- Car-to-X communication provides information about detected dangerous situations on the road for all other Car-to-X users. As with Live Traffic Information, the messages are shown on the COMAND Online map display.
- Active Parking Assist with Parking Assist PARKTRONIC and reversing camera makes it easier to find a parking space and to move into and out of parallel and end-on parking spaces. The vehicle can assist the driver with steering, acceleration, braking and changing gear, depending on the vehicle equipment.
- Remote Parking Assist allows the vehicle to be driven forwards into parallel and end-on parking spaces and in reverse into parallel parking spaces via smartphone app controlled from outside the vehicle.
By premiering the systems in the S-Class, Mercedes-Benz is following the strong tradition of these luxury vehicles as technology leaders. But these safety and comfort innovations are never the sole reserve of the S-Class. From the start – since ABS premiered – they have successively been incorporated into the Stuttgart manufacturer’s entire product range.
The new A-Class model series 177 makes this democratisation of Intelligent Drive crystal clear in 2018. It offers the latest driving assistance systems with cooperative driver support and thus boasts the highest level of active safety in its segment: The A-Class can drive semi-autonomously in certain situations for the first time. Assistance systems such as Active Blind Spot Assist with exit warning function, which warns of road users in the blind spot audibly when the door is opened with the car stationary and visually if ambient lighting is specified are actually premiering in the A-Class before they appear in larger model series.
Shaping the future of intelligent assistance systems
40 years after ABS premiered and 20 years after DISTRONIC made its debut, Mercedes-Benz is continuing to work tirelessly on the future of intelligent assistance systems. One important part of this is the Intelligent World Drive across all five continents with an S-Class vehicle, which ended at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January 2018 after five months.
Behind this lies the realisation that the future of automated driving can only become a reality if the vehicle is just as able to easily negotiate zebra crossings on Chinese motorways as it is to handle right turns from the left lane in Melbourne, Australia, and to obey the ban on driving right next to stopping school buses in North America. As experience has shown, challenges that will have an influence on the driving characteristics of future automated vehicles also include interaction with heavy pedestrian traffic in built-up areas on all continents.
The next big step towards the reality of fully automated and driverless vehicles will be taken in California: a major city in Silicon Valley will be the pilot region for a shuttle service with automated vehicles in 2019. The project is being implemented by Bosch and Daimler together with Nvidia as the supplier of the artificial-intelligence platform. The vehicle electronics will take just milliseconds to evaluate the collected and amalgamated data from the various sensors (sensor fusion) and plan the route on this basis. This will involve the system performing hundreds of billions of calculations per second.
Daimler Mobility Services has been designated as the operator of the test fleet and the app-based mobility service. The pilot project is designed to show how mobility services such as car sharing (car2go), ride hailing (mytaxi) and multimodal platforms (moovel) can be combined intelligently to shape the mobility of the future. For the development of the driving system for fully automated and driverless vehicles, Bosch and Daimler can count on expertise gained together over a period of decades. With their development partnership for fully automated and driverless driving in the urban environment launched in April 2017, Bosch and Daimler want to improve the flow of traffic in cities, increase road safety, and provide an important foundation for the traffic of the future.