Are we ready for a big Mercedes that, through using one of the most advanced cruise control setups yet, can use sat nav data to brake for approaching corners, while the driver sits idle? The answer might well depend on the outcome of a testing programme.
WHETHER New Zealand remains on the map for an autonomous testing programme being run by Mercedes Benz could depend on how that process plays out in Australia.
This is suggested by brand’s spokesman for the Australia/Pacific region, who says that at the moment chances of the trial also taking in our country are pretty decent – but also adds that, ultimately, the final decision lays with Germany.
Since March a specially equipped E-Class sedan has been clocking up kilometres in Australia, mainly around Victoria and New South Wales.
The model looks identical to those on sale in New Zealand, but the boot is packed with high-tech electronics that allow it to scrutinise the roadscape in incredible detail.
The car is acting as a kind of pathfinder for future product, starting with Benz’s S-Class facelift model, pictured here, that recently unveiled in Geneva and set to be on local sale at year-end.
The flagship luxury sedan has Distronic Plus componentry that enables a higher level of semi-autonomous operation than is availed the regular E-Class, the first Benz sold here with ability to self-steer and stop itself without a hand on the wheel – albeit for just short periods of time and only when its computers and scanners can adequately read the road condition, markings and signage.
The S-Class system is a further development of that technology and introduces ability to change speeds based on road sign technology and navigating lane changes and traffic.
Benz has yet to say if all this will come to our market, but it has made clear it requires more data about our road conditions – hence why the E-Class has been on a mission that has so far put 20,000kms’ driving on its odometer.
The S-Class uses the Here map system that it co-purchased last year with Audi and BMW for $5 billion. The company’s highly detailed mapping technology can help a car pinpoint its own location to within 20cm.
However, the rival to services such as Google Maps still needs to add to its data bank, and the broader mission for the E-Class is to gather data from Southern Hemisphere environments.
Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific manager of public relations and product communications Jerry Stamoulis has previously indicated that the brand is keen to run a trial in this country once the Australian drive is done and dusted.
He said today that this was still the plan. But when, where and for how long were still up in the air. It might not be until next year. There was a slim possibility it might not happen at all.
Ultimately it all came down to what the factory made of the Australian trial.
“There are a few milestones that we would like to cover off in Australia and, from there, we will make a decision about sending the vehicle to New Zealand. It’s not something that will happen in the next couple of months – it could happen this year, it might not happen until next year. It all comes down to if we have ticked all those boxes in Australia first.”
He said Benz identified that roads in Australia and New Zealand offered unique facets that could be important to the systems’ international development. Melbourne, where the regional head office is located, also provides something very unusual in the inner-city ‘hook turn’, whereby cars turning right have to hold hard left to facilitate the city’s trams. Stamoulis admitted this process utterly flummoxed the car’s on-board system. “It doesn’t know how to handle that one.”
Generally, though, Benz liked Australian and NZ roads. “As a right-hand drive market, we’ve actually got very good roads, and that’s why they wanted to test.”
Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific is speaking with Australia’s federal and state governments about regulations pertaining to the Level Two autonomy that is built into the S-Class.
Stamoulis was surprised when told that there were no such obvious legislative hurdles in NZ and that Transport Minister Simon Bridges has, in the past, indicated his eagerness for autonomous car trials to be held here.
He impressed that Benz was not wanting to give impression it was about to start providing autonomous driving ability; the systems in the E-Class and S-Class and others are designed to be driver assists.
It might only be another four years before a Benz could be put onto a motorway and enabled to self-drive along that kind of route, but it would probably be 20-30 years until one of its cars had ability to drive itself to a person’s home, and deliver that person to, say, a workplace, without any level of hands-on intervention.
“We are not going hands off the wheel. The testing we are doing is legal (in Australia), it’s what we currently sell, it’s just slightly more advanced … we’ve been greeted with open arms in Australia with regards to testing the technology and I understand (Mercedes’ NZ managing director) Ben Giffon is very, very keen to have the car as well because he has explained how interested the (NZ) Government is in respect to autonomous technology. That’s why it is on our radar.”
Meantime, the brand has revealed local market detail for the next E-Class edition, the cabriolet, saying the model will be represented in $133,500 E300 and $159,500 E400 formats, respectively powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder making 180kW/370Nm and a 3.0-litre six-cylinder creating 245kW and 480Nm.
Common features include leather trim, a nine-speed automatic, heated front seats, airscarf neck-level heating and a draught stop system, air suspension and 20-inch alloys. The E400 adds a 13 speaker Burmeister sound system, a head up display and metallic paint.