Hands on recce for a hands-off future

An E-Class sedan that demands a driver, now touring New Zealand, is playing an important role in the development of self-driving cars for Mercedes-Benz.


RUMBLE strip dimples, tailgaters and the middling quality of painted line markings along the edges of secondary roads could be challenging for self-driving cars attempting to negotiate New Zealand.

These are among observations so far accrued by operators of a specially-equipped Mercedes Benz parked up in Wellington yesterday, taking a day off from a factory-ordained national mission so it could be shown to Government high-ups and journalists.

Aside from some signage and its Victorian plates, the vehicle – which runs, for reasons only known within Mercedes, as ‘Project 61’ – looks like any other right-hand-drive E-Class sedan. Yet it is anything but.

The reason why no luggage can be carried in the boot is obvious when the lid is lifted. The entire floor space is taken up by computers. These are taking a continuous stream of data from instruments dotted elsewhere around the car, some quite obvious – like camera stuck to the windscreen and rear glass – and others very low key.

The quality of road marking issues is an international issue. Cleanly painted centre and roadside markings are an obvious requirement for autonomous driving. But the dimples that are sometimes placed to create a sound alerting a driver to when they are wandering out of the lane seem to be a very Kiwi thing that seem to vex the scanners.

“Those cats eye markers along the centre lines are great, it’s the other ones, the white dots that don’t have reflectors that can confuse,” says brand spokesman Jerry Stamoulis.

As for the quality of line markings? For sure, the team has found while main roads are well-sorted, secondary roads could be better.

Tailgaters are a tech issue as much a human one. No driver likes having a following vehicle hanging off the back bumper; least of all one operating an irreplaceable Mercedes test machine. But the location software that the car also employs also prefers surrounding traffic keeps its distance.

There are no complaints that this final leg of a massive international exercise has not provided smooth running. Challenges are a good thing.

A trip that started at Cape Reinga and branched off to the East Coast down to Gisborne as well as through Taranaki, and will soon take on the South, again from top to toe, but also taking in the hinterland, is a hands-on reconnaissance effort to ascertain what challenges the national roadscape throws at technology required to enable a fully safe hands-off driving future.

Every centimetre of a long drive that started this time last year and had put 20,000kms on the clock - through running from Perth to Cairns via Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane – even before reaching NZ is being data-logged and sent to Germany for analysis.

It’s info acquisition on a grand scale – up to 70,000 elements of data per second - that the world’s oldest car maker says is utterly requisite to inform the behaviour of future autonomous vehicles.

Ultimately those that will likely operate with little or no human intervention but, more immediately, the vehicles in our more immediate future, the next step from where we are now: ‘Level three’ autonomy.

That’s capability of assuming total control of a car in limited areas such as well-marked dual-carriage motorways. NZ has yet to see any level three cars, though the new Audi A8 landing later this year comes closest.

The soon-to-launch Mercedes S-Class coupe and cabriolet are not that far off, either, being equipped with a cruise control function that, in working with tandem with sensors and the sat nav, can ‘read’ upcoming road conditions and assist in preparing the car for them: So, as we discovered in a demo drive yesterday, it’ll soften the suspension for speed bumps, change down a gear and brake for corners, slow for intersections and stop the car at intersections. How long before it transfers from a $300,000 coupe to a much cheaper car? That’ll be August, when the new A-Class and updated C-Class come.

The E-Class is smart in a different way. The drive teams, sometimes engineers from Germany but often local Mercedes Benz staff, say everyday drives in everyday conditions is amassing amazing and highly useful information, ranging from local behaviour in real-world driving situations to wildlife activity and the varying quality of local roads.

If it’s any solace, the quirks found here are less confronting than in Australia.

Special treats across the Tasman that have severely tested Benz’s smarts include Melbourne’s infamous hook turns (well, who gets those?) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the local wildlife’s tendency to lunge into the traffic stream.

Both triggered headaches for this car and a more intensively kitted S-Class that spent a few weeks on Australian soil at the start of this year for a parallel exercise.

The big limo was undertaking the Intelligent World Drive, which took in the world’s five continents (hence why it bypassed our country) before finishing up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

It’s suite of tweaks surpassed those on the E-Class. They included ‘digital light’ technology capable of projecting complex images onto the ground at night – such as a striped zebra crossing showing pedestrians it is safe to walk in front of the car – which is going to be useful in an autonomous age.

It was also enabled to drive autonomously for extended periods without any human intervention. The regular model could also achieve this were Benz happy to a safety over-ride that requires drivers to make contact with the steering wheel from time to time. The brand won’t because it says the world isn’t ready.

Another technology that would be useful is still lacking in any NZ-spec Benz, regardless that other German premium brands allow it and even though high-end Mercedes models already have the hardware (and use it overseas), is traffic sign recognition.

This uses the camera mounted on the inside of the windscreen to identify speed restriction signs. This information is relayed to the navigation system and displayed in the instrument cluster and in the map view to help prevent drivers exceeding the speed limit. Mercedes has a system smart enough to also recognise no-overtaking zones and no-entry signs so as to prevent drivers from accidentally traveling in the wrong direction. But it is disabled here and will remain that way until Germany is satisfied our traffic signs are up to scratch.

That NZ is throwing up challenges of this kind is not unexpected; it synchs a report earlier this year that determined that this country is imperfect for being suitable for autonomous vehicles.

Auditing firm KPMG researched which countries present the best locations to test new innovations in the autonomous vehicles space. Its findings based on four criteria: Policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance.

NZ was considered the ninth best AV-ready country, directly ahead of South Korea, right behind United Arab Emirates. Australia came out in 14th. KMPG said the collapse of our neighbour’s automotive industry also saw it score poorly for research and development investment.

The report noted the NZ Transport Agency’s support of companies testing AVs helps build on our reputation as a technology test-bed. It also said better infrastructure would help us become more AV ready. 

The Netherlands topped the rankings. Why? Because it has more than 1000 traffic lights capable of communicating with autonomous cars. It also has the highest density of electric vehicles and relatively large numbers of businesses involved in AV research.

NZ placed second only to Singapore on policy and legislation, with high scores for AV regulation. KMPG was also pleased there is no specific legal requirement for cars to contain drivers here and that the past, and present, Government has been generally supportive of the technology. NZ also has a strong reputation as a technology test-bed and consumers that are relatively accepting of new technologies, it says.

However, we scored low on technology and innovation - with no AV company headquarters, patents or investment found in the research – and also for infrastructure.

NZ was in the bottom five on infrastructure due to low levels of 4G coverage outside populated areas and few electric charging stations and achieved middling ratings for road quality and road infrastructure.

Meantime, Benz NZ boss Ben Giffin says his brand is working toward making driving safer.

“We work very hard to minimise the number of accidents and severity of injuries … we can’t promise the impossible, simply because there are humans behind the wheel, but this is precisely why we need systems that come to the driver’s aid when necessary.”