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  • Extraordinary self-drive car concept that gets it 80% right; capable of complete autonomous driving on public roads and freeways; uses near-production based technology
  • There are situations such as high-speed lane merging and 4-way stop intersections that the car doesn't deal with in a perfectly safe manner.

OUR RATING
8 / 10



Normally when you’re kicking back in a prestige limo, there’s a well-dressed, professional chauffeur up front in the driver’s seat. That’s definitely not the case if the vehicle in question is the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive.

Unlike the conventional S-Class ‘Benz, the S500 Intelligent Drive doesn’t require anyone to steer the car; it’s all down to a bewildering combination of algorithms, cameras and radar.

We’ve just arrived at the Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North American facility in Sunnyvale, California, to experience first hand what it’s like to be a passenger in one of the world’s first autonomous cars.

It’s a lot more than a mere glimpse into the future of personalised transport, mainly because, well… the future is already here, and its using today’s near-production-standard technology.

And it’s not like we’re using a Mercedes-Benz purpose-built test centre for this particular self-driving vehicle test, either. We’ll be travelling over a 20-kilometre loop on public roads in a real-life environment around Sunnyvale, complete with all the usual obstacles including traffic lights, lane merging and four-way intersections; each with its own stop sign, just to make things more interesting.

Mercedes Benz already completed a significant autonomous vehicle test in Germany in August 2013, when the S500 Intelligent Drive covered the 100km distance between the German cities of Mannheim and Pforzheim. That test followed the historic route used by Bertha Benz in her Patent Wagon 3 motorised vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive: Review

The driving environment in the United States presents some unique challenges with autonomous testing compared to the motoring landscape in Germany where the lanes are narrow and limited to three.

In the US, lanes are typically wider and roads can include up to eight lanes in each direction. Traffic signals are on the opposite side of the road, as well as a range of freeway-merging scenarios that the self-drive S-Class has to deal with.

Mercedes-Benz has been testing autonomously driven cars on public roads in the US state of California since mid-September, after it was granted an official licence by the state.

However, in the interests of public safety, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in California requires specially trained drivers to carry out the autonomous test drives in case it all goes wrong. They must recognise when the car is in autonomous driving mode and must be able to override the system at any time. Furthermore, the car must be capable of stopping autonomously at any time.

To that end, The S500 Intelligent Drive is specially equipped with digital mapping that lists the locations of all 14 traffic lights on the test drive route. It’s also equipped with a veritable arsenal of detection devices including three long-range radars and four short-range radars to improve real-time sensing of other road users and the general surroundings.

Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive: Review

There’s also a colour stereo unit installed behind the windscreen, so the S500 not only knows that a traffic signal is coming up, it knows exactly where it is located.

While filming inside the car by a third party is prohibited, as a passenger in the back seat of the Intelligent Drive Benz, I can tell you the system is flat-out mind-blowing.

As the S500 approached the first traffic light, the camera momentarily analysed the status of the traffic light in real time by using colour recognition. That status of the traffic light and the distance to it are displayed in the instrument cluster. If the light is yellow or red, the car brakes and moves off accordingly when the light changes to green – all without the test drivers lifting a finger.

The real test though, is coming up.

As the S500 Intelligent Drive approaches an intersection, it uses both radar sensors and cameras to essentially case the surroundings – this is where it really gets interesting. It detects approaching vehicles and reacts autonomously and according to the right-of-way rules for that particular junction.

If the sensors compute that the other cars are stopping, the system activates the turn indicator and turns autonomously. But if the other vehicles have the right of way, it waits for a safe gap before moving off.

Pedestrian crossings are also marked on the map and as a result, the test car drives slower before a crossing and automatically stops if someone is waiting to cross.

Multi-lane freeways were no problem either, with the S500 capable of registering other road users and infrastructure simultaneously.

The system can pinpoint their precise locations and measure their speeds with a scanning range of up to 192 metres at more than 25 times per second. And just like our lane merging experience, the car simply drives around parked vehicles while following the traffic rules where it is safe to do so, or brakes to a full stop if there are no gaps to safely merge.

However, it’s not perfect. Although the cameras are able to read the lane markings, some slightly nervous lane correcting usually follows right or left-hand turns across an intersection – then it seems to settle down.

Perhaps a more worrying moment for a colleague and I was a full-panic stop on a motorway entrance slip road, as we attempted to merge with another vehicle. Apparently, the system calculated that our car couldn’t safely accelerate past the other car and rather than risk a collision, decided the best course of action was to enact a full stop before continuing onto the freeway with clear space ahead.

Another difficult situation for the Intelligent Drive car to deal with in the Unites States is the four-way stop junctions, which operate on a first-to-arrive, first-to-go basis. While the research car can actually deal with this event successfully, it’s also under continued development along with more up-to-date mapping data that can incorporate up to the minute road changes that local councils might make from day-to-day.

While the Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive is no less than science fiction for the here and now, our test drive clearly demonstrated that we are still a long way off the idea that you could walk into a dealership and purchase an autonomous vehicle.

However, with traffic congestion eating up between four and six hours a day in some cities, the idea behind sitting back and either answering emails or just watching the morning news on a big screen TV makes a whole lot of sense.

Stretch the idea further and we can see an app that not only drops you off at work, but is also able to make its way back to your office to collect you at the end of the day.

The possibilities are endless and Mercedes-Benz is at the pointy end of the research.


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MERCEDES-BENZ S500 BREAKDOWN

Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive: Review
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Mercedes-Benz S500 Specs

222 : 4.7L TURBO MPFI - 7 SP AUTOMATIC G-TRONIC - PREMIUM UNLEADED PETROL - 4D SEDAN
Car Details
Make
MERCEDES-BENZ
Model
S500
Series
222
Year
2014
Body Type
4D SEDAN
Seats
5
Pricing
New Price
N/A
Private Sale
$179,520 - $204,000
Dealer Retail
$173,530 - $206,360
Dealer Trade
$137,900 - $163,200
Engine Specifications
Engine Type
TURBO MPFI
Engine Size
4.7L
Cylinders
TURBO V8
Max. Torque
700Nm @  1800rpm
Max. Power
335kW @  5250rpm
Pwr:Wgt Ratio
167.9W/kg
Bore & Stroke
93x86mm
Compression Ratio
10.5
Valve Gear
VARIABLE DOUBLE OVERHEAD CAM
Drivetrain Specifications
Transmission
7 SP AUTOMATIC G-TRONIC
Drive Type
REAR WHEEL DRIVE
Final Drive Ratio
0
Fuel Specifications
Fuel Type
PREMIUM UNLEADED PETROL
Fuel Tank Capacity
80Litres
Fuel Consumption (Combined)
9.2L / 100km
Weight & Measurement
Kerb Weight
1995
Gross Vehicle Weight
Not Provided
Height
1496mm
Length
5116mm
Width
1899mm
Ground Clearance
109mm
Towing Capacity
Brake:0  Unbrake:0
Steering & Suspension
Steering Type
RACK & PINION - POWER ASSISTED
Turning Circle
11.9
Front Rim Size
8.5x20
Rear Rim Size
9.5x20
Front Tyres
245/40 R20
Rear Tyres
245/40 R20
Wheel Base
3035
Front Track
1613
Rear Track
1604
Front Brakes
DISC - VENTILATED
Rear Brakes
DISC - VENTILATED
Front Suspension
Front Air Suspension, Adaptive Damping System
Rear Suspension
Rear Air Suspension, Adaptive Damping System
Standard Features
Comfort
Auto Climate Control with Dual Temp Zones, Heated Front Seats, Power front seats, Power Sunroof
Control & Handling
Air Suspension, 20 Inch Alloy Wheels, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Electronic Stability Program, Hill Holder, Traction Control System
Driver
Cruise Control Intelligent/Active, Multi Function Steering Wheel, Mobile Phone Connectivity, Power Steering, Satellite Navigation, Trip Computer, Voice Recognition System
Entertainment
Radio Compact Disc Player, Sound System with 13 Speakers, Television
Exterior
Metallic Paint, Remote Boot/Hatch Release
Interior
Leather Upholstery, Power Windows, Wood Grain Trim
Safety
Dual Front Airbag Package, Anti-lock Braking, Head Airbags, PreSafe, Side Airbags, Seatbelts - Pre-tensioners Front Seats
Security
Alarm System/Remote Anti Theft, Engine Immobiliser
Optional Features
Comfort
Rear Air Conditioning, Comfort Seats Front, Comfort Seats Rear, Power Rear Seats, Rear Seat Enhancement Pack
Entertainment
Premium Sound System
Exterior
Metallic Paint Special
Interior
Carbon Fibre Trim
Package
AMG Styling Wheels & Body Pack, Comfort Pack
Other
Service Interval
12 months /  25,000 kms
Warranty
36 months /  999,000 kms
VIN Plate Location
Driver Side Front Footwell
Country of Origin
Germany