Mercedes Vows to Keep Steering Wheels Even in Robot Cars

Mercedes-Benz won’t abandon traditional car components like steering wheels and brake pedals even as vehicles develop the ability to take control.

Contrary to Google Inc.’s vision of completely automated transport pods, the Daimler AG unit wants to make sure people still have the option to grab the wheel. The car instead will perform tedious tasks such as navigating stop-and-go traffic, long-haul highway travel and parking.

“We specifically do not want to automate the fun out of driving,” Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche said in a speech at the University of Oxford yesterday. “At Mercedes, the steering wheel, throttle and brake pedals will remain standard equipment.”

The comments reflect the tension that the shift to driverless vehicles represents for traditional automakers, especially upscale brands. While automated-driving features are key to shore up their reputations for innovation, Mercedes, Audi and others are careful not to undermine performance aspects of their cars, which allows them to charge more than mass-market competitors. To show that the two can go hand in hand, Audi showcased an unmanned RS7 at racing speeds last month.

“The level of autonomous drive will really depend on where and when a vehicle is used,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “In city traffic in 20 or 30 years, we will probably see more Google-like models without steering wheels, while driving a car by yourself will become a leisure activity.”

Crosswalk Halt

Mercedes, the world’s third-largest maker of luxury vehicles, has made an effort to promote autonomous driving functions. Last year, Mercedes tested a self-driving S-Class sedan during a 60-mile trip on public roads in Germany.

“We’re shooting for autonomous driving on highways, in the first up 120 kilometer per hour, with passenger cars before the end of the decade,” Zetsche said during the talk.

The Stuttgart, Germany-based manufacturer is already rolling out an optional Stop&Go Pilot on models like the C-Class sedan. The feature enables the car to steer itself while matching the speed of the vehicle in front of it, including coming to a complete stop.

As a next step, Mercedes aims to introduce fully-automated parking that would allow the driver to leave the vehicle to find its own parking space. At the same time, Daimler, also the world’s biggest maker of commercial vehicles, is working on self-driving trucks.

Still, the technology isn’t totally perfect. During the German test drive, the driverless S-Class remained halted at a crosswalk even when a pedestrian tried to wave it on. For such events as well as the thrill of accelerating out of a curve, Mercedes isn’t ready to abandon human drivers.

“Many people have difficulty with the thought of giving up control,” Zetsche said. “Even if people have accepted autonomous driving as a part of their lives, they still want to have a choice.”

To gain more autonomy from Google, Daimler is working on its own “Moovel maps,” which will be introduced next month, Zetsche said. The mapping data is more precise than Google’s, because it’s based on an open-source system, the CEO said.

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