Into the Big Bear Mountains using DRIVE Pilot.
Michael Kelz casually leans back against the wing of his camouflaged prototype. It’s just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the no man’s land between the Californian mountains and the plains of Nevada. Here, not far from Calico Ghost Town, there is no sign of the prototype paparazzi who lie in wait for the teams of Mercedes-Benz engineers wherever they are in the world.
The new E-Class, which will celebrate its world premiere at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in mid-January 2016, is now in the final stages of development. All that remains before its market launch in the coming spring is some fine tuning of the drive system, suspension and countless comfort and safety systems.
Michael Kelz, Chief Engineer for the E-/CLS-/GLC-Class
DRIVE PILOT FROM LOS ANGELES TO LAS VEGAS
The sunny test drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which also includes a detour to the snow-dusted peaks of the Big Bear Mountains, focuses on the driver assistance systems offered by the new Mercedes E-Class. Drive Pilot makes it possible for this luxury-class saloon to drive almost completely by itself, especially on roads with separate carriageways such as motorways and expressways.
Depending on speed, road type, curve radius, road markings and the traffic ahead, project manager Michael Kelz briefly takes his hands from the wheel at various times as he drives northbound along Interstate 15. Whenever he does, his preproduction prototype of the Mercedes E 400 takes full control over braking, accelerating and steering.
OVERTAKING ON INTERSTATE 15 WITH NO HANDS ON THE WHEEL
The evening has drawn in. Michael Kelz has his eyes on the road ahead, which is brilliantly illuminated by the multibeam LED headlamps. The interstate is busy and it’s pitch black on either side. Every so often the instrument cluster will display a visual request to the driver asking him to take back the wheel. Michael Kelz then only needs to swipe one of the two touch controls on the steering wheel for the car to carry on driving by itself. This is comparable to the dead man’s switch in a train driver’s cab. Michael Kelz sits with his legs bent and his hands resting casually in his lap. He only has to tap the indicator and the new E-Class changes lane as if by magic. And the whole time it knows exactly what is going on around it. Once the car in front has been passed, the indicator flashes again and the E-Class automatically gets back into lane. The entire overtaking manoeuvre happens almost completely by itself. Kelz could make use of the long drive north-east for catching up with his emails or analysing the soon-to-be-over day of testing, but there is currently no legal framework in place for him to do so, and in very complex situations a driver is, of course, required. The responsibility still lies with the driver at all times. “That is why we have a lot of instructions in the manual and a multi-stage warning strategy to ensure that the driver regularly takes hold of the wheel,” says Michael Kelz. In the near future it will be possible to adapt the driver assistance system to the local legal situation by changing the settings of the vehicle’s software.
MAKING DRIVING EASIER ON LONG JOURNEYS AND IN CITY CENTRES
“We are setting a benchmark with the new E-Class. It’s not easy because the model range has the maximum spread – from the basic taxi version to the top-of-the-range AMG model,” explains Michael Kelz. The W 213 generation, which is up to 70 kilograms lighter than its predecessor, provides maximum comfort and the highest levels of safety at all times.
But in city centres too, its all-round cameras and sensors can help to avoid accidents. For example, the E-Class will brake for pedestrians or crossing traffic, and its Evasive Steering Assist will kick in to avoid an imminent collision once it has been triggered by the driver’s steering input.
Thanks to full connectivity via car-to-X communication, the E-Class will be able to inform other road users of danger spots, accidents and impending tailbacks. It is the only car, in Europe at least, that can do this at the present time. Initially, the E-Class will communicate, via a central Daimler server, only with other Mercedes models but competitors’ vehicles are to be brought on board as well in the coming years. The more cars that can communicate with other in this way, the better it will be.
On leaving the endlessly long Interstate 15 not far from the bright lights of Las Vegas, the high level of comfort offered by the Mercedes E 300 is again apparent. Despite the poor road surface, the car rolls along quietly and, although it is only a prototype, vibrations are hardly felt inside. Arriving at our destination, it is clear that the comfort and convenience of the E-Class doesn’t end with the drive. The stress is even taken out of parking. At the car park, which happens to be particularly tight, our vehicle is manoeuvred into the space and subsequently locked – all using a smartphone. We stand by and watch in amazement.