SUNNYVALE, Calif. — Mercedes-Benz this year became the first automaker in the U.S. to say it plans to sell an advanced driver-assistance system that allows motorists to drive eyes-and-hands-free in certain traffic conditions.
But the company is aiming for an even more sophisticated Level 4 technology that would enable a vehicle to drive without human involvement under most conditions.
Mercedes’ Level 3 Drive Pilot system, self-certified for use only in Nevada for now, uses radar, lidar and other sensors to enable a vehicle to control driving functions on highways at speeds of up to 40 mph, freeing the driver to do other things, such as answer emails. Level 3 on the SAE International scale requires a human to take control of the vehicle when the automated driving system requests.
Mercedes Chief Technology Officer Markus Schäfer said achieving the more advanced Level 4 driving is “doable” by the end of the decade.
“Private-owned Level 4 cars, absolutely. This is something that I see in the future,” Schäfer said at a media event here last week.
Schäfer sees a market for hands-free, eyes-free driving in congested cities, especially in China, where traffic jams lasting several hours are common.
“Just imagine you are in a big city, and you come from work, and you are sitting for two hours in traffic, and you press the button and go to sleep,” he said. “There will be a demand for that.”
Humans have no role in driving when Level 4 automation is operating. Such a system can drive a vehicle within certain geographical limits or weather restrictions, as opposed to the elusive Level 5 system that would drive under all conditions. Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise operate driverless robotaxi services in specific areas, but with vehicles that cost too much for regular commuters to own. BMW, like Volvo, is planning to install the hardware it believes will be necessary for automated driving and then update the software as capabilities and regulations allow.
Mercedes is already working toward bringing Level 4 technology to market. Germany passed a law in 2021 allowing Level 4 automated driving in specific public spaces.
Last year, Mercedes and megasupplier Robert Bosch received approval in Germany for a fully automated valet parking system for use in a Stuttgart Airport garage, allowing cars to drive into a reserved parking spot. The software relies on communication with sensors in the parking location to detect obstacles.
“We want to create a technology package [containing] everything a car needs to become a self-driving vehicle: sensors, cloud-based data processing and other components,” said Michael Hafner, a Mercedes software executive who previously was head of Drive Technologies and Automated Driving at the automaker. “We will offer this package to other OEMs as well.”