Inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic, finding a space in a crowded garage, or squeezing into a tight parking spot can try the patience of any driver. Unless, of course, that driver isn’t a driver at all. That’s the logic behind the recent rush of companies, from Mercedes-Benz to auto component maker Continental (CON:GR), to roll out electronic sensor-guided systems that can take the wheel for such tedious tasks.
Daimler’s (DAI:GR) Mercedes is leading the way with an add-on called “Stop & Go Pilot” available in its €79,800 ($105,800) flagship S-Class sedan. Backed by an array of 12 ultrasonic detectors, 5 cameras, and 6 radar sensors, the S-Class can match the speed of the car in front of it in heavy traffic, even coming to a complete stop and adjusting steering to stay in the lane, as it slowly trails the car ahead. The optional feature costs €2,678 in Germany, where it’s already available.
Sitting back to read e-mail or watch a video as the car takes you to your destination—a scenario envisioned by the likes of Google (GOOG)—is still years away. But the Mercedes option and others being readied by rivals such as BMW (BMW:GR) and Volvo Cars (175:HK) show that luxury automakers have far more ambitious plans than the backup cameras and lane-change warning systems that have already made their way onto midmarket models from Honda Motor (HMC) and Ford Motor (F). “Autonomous drive won’t come as a revolution overnight,” says Jochen Hermann, director of driver-assistance systems at Mercedes. “The driver needs to get used to the technology.”
Most of the pending autopilot projects are geared toward handling the drearier bits of the daily commute. In November, BMW plans to introduce an upgraded parking-assistant option in its 5 Series sedans that allows hands-free driving as the car turns independently into a parking space, avoiding dents. Robert Bosch, the world’s largest supplier of auto parts, showed a similar feature in April, when a driverless car reversed into a parking spot as if by remote control. Volkswagen’s (VOW:GR) Audi luxury unit is developing a system that allows the driver to exit the car at a parking garage’s entrance, leaving the vehicle to find a vacant spot on its own.
Volvo is working on a similar parking-garage feature and next year will introduce an automatic brake technology in its XC90 that can detect obstacles in the dark. That sport-utility vehicle will also keep itself on the road through technology that senses where the pavement ends. BMW and Continental, Europe’s second-largest maker of car parts, are collaborating on technology to master more complicated situations such as driving through toll booths or recognizing new speed limits and road signs when traveling across national borders. Continental is spending more than €100 million on assisted-driving efforts this year and has 1,300 engineers involved in development. Says Ralf Lenninger, the parts maker’s head of interior development: “Our aim is fully automatic driving that allows the driver to watch TV.”
Nissan Motor (NSANY) plans to sell affordable self-driving vehicles by 2020, Executive Vice President Andy Palmer said in August. But laws must change first. To comply with existing rules in Europe, the Mercedes system allows the car to keep control only at speeds of less than 10 kph (6 mph). In the U.S., Nevada, Florida, and California allow cars to be self-directed on public roads, but they can only be prototypes for testing purposes.
Mercedes’s stop-and-go feature is activated by switching on cruise control. It shuts off when the driver steps on the brake or switches it off manually. At speeds higher than 10 kph, the automated control system continuously monitors the driver and makes sure she keeps her hands on the steering wheel; letting go for more than about 10 seconds prompts a red light to flash and then a beep to sound. “We don’t want the driver to believe the system can do everything,” Mercedes’s Hermann says, “because at the end of the day, the driver is still responsible.”