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The safety engineers at Mercedes-Benz are using intelligent driver assistance systems to prevent the driver from being distracted

All eyes and ears ahead.

  • 13. October 2016
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Photos: Daimler
  • Text: Rüdiger Abele
  • Illustration: Mathis Rekowski

Today’s drivers feel exonerated by assistance systems and at the same time remain fully engaged at the wheel – a fact the Mercedes-Benz safety engineers are aware of.

The automobile is a complex driving machine. One of these days, it will be fully automated. Until then, it is steered expertly by humans – supported by a host of assistance systems. The human at the wheel acts with experience, foresight and a delicate touch, operates pedals, switches and other components, furnishes his own body’s sensitive sensors, and steers the machine towards the destination.

Assistance systems help to save lives.

But despite all the attentiveness: Hardly any driver will claim to be immune to being distracted occasionally. In the most basic case, by thoughts or conversations. In other instances, by additional actions such as putting an item on the passenger seat. The surroundings, for example other road users, can also contribute to distraction. In such cases, safety assistance systems like Active Brake Assist with cross-traffic function are at the ready and can even help save lives.

It is even better to design all vehicle systems in a way that makes it easier for the driver to be attentive at all times and for distraction to be avoided.

Unburdening drivers to make them more focused

Mercedes-Benz has a long tradition of preserving driver attention as much as possible and also doing so on long journeys. An example in this regard is the hallmark Mercedes-Benz “stress-relieving comfort”, that is to say designing vehicle details as optimal as possible with the goal of ensuring the driver focuses on the traffic conditions. The design of the controls, easy-to-read display concepts as well as an optimal seating position or the design of the climate control system are intended to keep the demands on the driver as low as possible.

It is important to pay a great deal of attention to what the experts call the man-machine interface when it comes to driver assistance systems as well: the interaction between technology and user. Especially with regard to transparency, manageability and acceptance. After all, the technologies are supposed to help boost comfort and safety without patronising drivers, let alone allowing them to become complacent with regard to their driving tasks. The English language has a term for this risk: the phenomenon is called “zoning out”.

Test series in the driving simulator

Getting highly automated driving ready for future vehicle models admittedly presents new challenges with regard to “zoning out”. A realistic scenario assumes that the systems will steer the vehicle in certain driving situations without help from the person at the wheel, including long distances, while performing all actions in the process autonomously. The appeal for motorists lies in the fact that they can be completely relieved from the partly tiresome job of driving. The driver does not need to take over again until the external circumstances no longer permit continued automated driving. However: How long can it take for drivers to then take control again?

“Drivers are fully back on task after no more than three seconds and are even able to master demanding situations,” says Christoph von Hugo, Head of Active Safety at Mercedes-Benz. “We have conducted an extensive series of tests in our driving simulator to investigate precisely this.”

A great deal of attention on the man-machine interface.

Customers appreciate assistance systems

By now, more than 1000 test subjects have had the opportunity to take an S-Class for a spin, which the developers equipped with extensive functions for autonomous driving. The participants – none of them a vehicle developer or professional driver – navigated virtually through various absolutely realistically rendered traffic situations in the industry’s most modern driving simulator at the Sindelfingen Development Centre. They were monitored closely with regard to distraction and the subsequent resumption of the job of driving.

Apart from isolated tests on public roads, highly automated driving is still some way off. However, the functions of semi-automated driving have long since made it into our everyday lives. “Nowadays, most of our customers very much appreciate the extensive support from the assistance systems and yet remain absolutely alert in traffic,” explains Gerhard Nöcker, Mercedes-Benz Development Engineer for Active Safety. “They feel freed – which is precisely our intention – and remain fully engaged at the wheel.”

More safety thanks to automated systems

His colleague Stephan Mücke adds: “Should someone happen to be distracted nonetheless, the semi-automated systems also provide added safety.” It not only automatically maintains a safe following distance, but can help the driver to keep the vehicle in its lane at speeds of up to 210 km/h. “This represents not only added comfort, but also added safety, also and especially in cases of slight distractions such as when operating the audio system,” emphasises Mücke.

Two-fold vigilance

“The vehicle monitors the traffic, and the driver also monitors the traffic,” says Christoph von Hugo, summarizing a crucial advantage of assistance systems. “This is true for systems activated by the driver and for those that are always active without the driver’s help. All systems operate to ensure that drivers fully live up to their responsibility. If they fail to do so, the technology weaves an additional safety net.”

According to von Hugo, lower steering forces, for example, provide significant relief and increased comfort. “And as we know: An increase in comfort also ultimately always means an increase in fitness and thus in safety. That is why it is important to us that people experience the DRIVE PILOT as a complement to and not a replacement of the driver – a cooperation between man and vehicle, so to speak.”

' An increase in comfort also ultimately always means an increase in safety. '

Christoph von Hugo, Head of Active Safety at Mercedes-Benz

Interactive Owner’s Manual

Mercedes-Benz always pays a great deal of attention to the development and design of the man-machine interface. This also includes explaining the use of assistance systems and of those for semi-automated driving to the driver. The classic owner’s manual is one medium to that effect, the Interactive Owner’s Manual being its more modern variant. In addition, there may be messages in the instrument cluster and thus in the driver’s field of vision, for example immediately after a Lane Keeping Assist intervention, which illustrate what just happened in highly condensed form.

“Such a thing boosts learning from experience,” says Christoph von Hugo. “Drivers not only get to know how the system works, but their awareness of similar situations and even of safety requirements is heightened in addition. Safety is our top priority.”

Testing for tomorrow’s mobility

One more glimpse at the future of highly-automated driving: Will some of today’s assistance systems not become redundant when the computer takes full control of the wheel? “We are currently not working based on this assumption,” says Gerhard Nöcker. “On the contrary, many systems are precisely the basis for autonomous driving, and we will further optimise the technology for the tasks that will be no less demanding then.”

In the driving simulator technology meets real life scenarios.

New cars are being driven long before their wheels ever start to turn: Daimler’s state-of-the-art driving simulator at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Centre (MTC) in Sindelfingen complements the work that is done in the laboratory and on the test track. Particularly for more complex systems, such as those that will be required for autonomous driving, it helps to ensure the technology is thoroughly safety-tested before it reaches the customer.

The driving simulator is so realistic that when you take it for a virtual spin you very quickly forget you’re not in a real car. It has a 360-degree screen, a fast electric drive system and a twelve-metre rail for lateral movement. At the push of a button it can present almost any real-world scenario, and it can be switched from day to night at any time.

The simulator is used to analyse vehicle components at the prototype stage. It is also employed in screenings with test subjects, for example when testing autonomous driving. The advantage: It delivers quick results, especially in situations that occur only rarely in everyday life. It also saves developers a considerable amount of mileage on actual roads, and therefore substantial resources.

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