The next E-Class can drive, and even lane-cross, without a human hand on the wheel … but it’s unlikely to be allowed to put itself to bed at night here.
THE single-best demo delight feature among an array of impressive assists packed into the latest Mercedes E-Class coming to New Zealand around July, though likely acceptable under local regs, might be denied Kiwis regardless – because our neighbours are edgy about it.
The new model’s Remote Parking Pilot provides ability to manoeuvre the car into and out of parking spaces and garages remotely using a smartphone app after the driver has stepped out.
Really designed, as today's video shows, for places where parking is extra-tight, a function that allows the car to be moved back and forth in ‘Exploration’ mode up to 10 metres, as long as the operator is within three metres of the vehicle, would likely be a surefire sales tool in a sector where ‘latest and greatest’ technological edge is a crucial desirability factor.
Obviously, too, you could imagine owners wasting little time demonstrating it to their mates as an ultimate ‘bet yours can’t do this’ example of the Benz uber-USP.
However Remote Parking Pilot will very likely be deactivated on the New Zealand market car launching here in the third part of 2016, because Australian road rules don’t allow for it.
That Kiwis have to suffer the implications of Australian Design Rules is a result of a market reality.
New Zealand and Australia do not have completely common traffic laws, but with Benz in Germany have determined our two countries to be as one in respect to model supply and distributorship, we are served up the same Mercedes cars.
Because Australians buy a lot more Benzes than we do, Mercedes Benz Australia – of which the Auckland-based New Zealand operation is an off-shoot – has dibs on calling the shots, on the assumption that what is good for over there is also perfectly fine for us as well.
Spokesman David McCarthy has told Motoring Network there’s at best a slim possibility the system could be reactivated on the NZ-bound cars even after it had been disabled for Australia’s identical models, assuming NZ law allowed for its use - as it seems to do. BMW New Zealand has subsequently advised Motoring Network it will offer Remote Parking on the new-generation, G11 Seven Series, on examples arriving from May onwards.
"We are not aware of any regulatory restrictions that would prevent BMW Remote Parking featuring on our cars available in New Zealand," spokesman Edward Finn said.
Nonethless the reality with the new Mercedes is that, unless reactivation is a matter of a few switch flicks or a straightforward reprogramming, we will have to do as Australians do - and do without.
Says McCarthy: “that feature will not be enabled in Australia and, I suspect, New Zealand … we have common specification cars.”
Even without the advanced self-park, Benz is confident the level of autonomous ability and safety Intelligent Drive technology the new E-Class is set to introduce here under a Driving Assistance Package Plus banner is going to unmatched by any other new model distributed here.
However, it also concedes that the advancements the car delivers have created some challenges in ensuring conformity with Australasian driving regulations.
The suite that takes fully-outfitted examples of the new model to the top of the Mensa class is so clever it requires a reset of fundamental regulations that, until this level of ability was made feasible, would have seemed to make totally good sense.
McCarthy says the harmonisation of what the car can be allowed to do within Australian regulations has required months of talks with Australia’s federal Department of Transport and Regional Services (DoTaRS).
Benz has found itself dissuading confusion this is a fully autonomous car – a perception potentially fueled by it having just been named the first production car to be meted Nevada’s first Autonomous Driver’s License.
“This isn’t a car in which you can get into after going to the pub and it will drive you home,” McCarthy quipped to Motoring Network.
Mind you, it’s not THAT far removed. The outgoing E-Class had the ability to drive itself, without the driver’s hands on the wheel. But it required set parameters and only allowed a bare 12 seconds’ hands-free operation.
The new one can pull the same trick for up to a minute and without the use of lane markings and signposts. The implementation of an extra-clever active cruise control allows it to automatically adjust speeds in response to camera-detected speed limits or those logged in the navigation system. Oh yes … it can also change lane by itself.
Is the world ready for this? Almost all the brand’s major markets are; but Australia has shown some reservation, though some progress has been achieved.
On the day of the car’s international unveiling at the recent Detroit motor show, McCarthy received notification DoTaRS has given a general thumbs’ up to those on-road operations – a huge step.
Until then it was thought approval might take up to a year, which raised probability that cars shipped in during the interim would be legally required to dumb down. Not palatable for a model selling as much on sophistication as style.
Benz is still playing safe. It’ll be running demonstrator cars well ahead of the Australasian public launch, timed for the third quarter of 2016, so agencies can see and be satisfied. McCarthy says that it has won over all the big countries Benz sells in is a positive sign.
“It’s approved for use in Europe,” says McCarthy. “We expect it will be approved for use in Australia but the regulator, as in all these things, may want to see it demonstrated before they give the tick.
“We don’t expect any problems but there’s a process.”
His company isn’t just working at federal level; state politics and policies also come into play.
Explains McCarthy: “Some state police forces have different views on different things … but the federal government has primacy. But if a particular state police department was to say ‘you’re not in control of the vehicle’ there could be some discussion on it.”
He stresses that DoTaRS aren’t trying to be spoilsports. “They are great to deal with. They are very co-operative.
“They understand the technology, they want to see it introduced, they understand that this sort of stuff is a big contribution to road safety. In some cases, the regulation and the technology are not … well, there isn’t a conflict, but in some cases it’s meeting a regulation developed at a time that didn’t foresee this.”
“We don’t see an issue with New Zealand. This car passes for sale in Europe and also in the United Kingdom and, as some of your cars unofficially come from the UK, I cannot foresee a problem. But as it’s not launching for another six months we’ve got time to work through this.”
Not everything the E-Class does is wholly new. The outgoing E-Class already has ability to steer itself, but for up to 12 seconds - the new one can sustain for a full minute.
Also, the outgoing generation required a clearly painted markings for autonomous reference, whereas the incoming references those but also measures off solid objects like railings and also other cars to gain reference and will self-control for much longer – a full minute optimally - and at speeds up to 130kmh. It can also intervene with braking and and steering functions in this mode in order to avoid collisions.
The car also offers Speed Limit Pilot, which automatically adjusts the speed of the vehicle in relation to posted speed limits, and Active Lane Change Assist, which is able to autonomously perform a lane change when the driver has activated the indicator for more than two seconds and sensors detect the adjacent lane is unoccupied.
Other ‘E’ abilities include an updated pedestrian avoidance system can help avoid hitting a person at speeds of up to 60kmh (if the driver initiates a avoiding swerve, the vehicle can help to steer itself back into the correct lane) and networking functionality to ‘talk’ to similarly equipped cars in its immediate vicinity, sharing information on traffic conditions, accidents and weather. Car-to-X Communication works via an on-board SIM card and Mercedes-Benz’s own database of owners.
Also, the lighting system is integrated into the Intelligent Drive system, with more lighting power provided in poor weather, or when approaching the outskirts of a city.