COLIN SMITH HAS BEEN LEARNING WHAT THE MERCEDES W213 SERIES E-CLASS HAS TO OFFER
The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan has just started to appear on New Zealand roads, bringing a raised level of assisted driving and a taster for the autonomous driving technologies on the near-horizon.
A massive development programme has loaded the W213 Series E-Class with technologies that make driving safer and less stressful.
E-Class systems can take virtually all driver input out of parking manoeuvres and provide steering assistance allowing automatic lane changing and pedestrian-evasive action.
There is so much content in the new E-Class that Tech Days are part of the introduction process.
I attended one in Melbourne last week, spending a morning at Sandown Park as driving instructors ran through well-rehearsed demonstrations and taking the wheel for a short urban and freeway run.
First up was a demo of the enhanced Parking Pilot system -- now parallel and perpendicular with forward-in or reverse-in functions and the ability for the system to locate multiple spaces for the driver to select from.
It's when using Parking Pilot the E-Class becomes the "hands-off" driving experience that previews further advances in autonomous driving.
Once you have selected a preferred parking space and -- if necessary -- been prompted to select reverse, the E-Class makes all the steering, throttle and brake decisions, even changing from forward to reverse gear several times to wriggle into a tight space.
It's estimated the E-Class will complete a parallel park into a space between cars only 800mm longer than its own length. The Parking Pilot can also be used to leave a carpark and where visibility is restricted the Rear Cross Traffic Alert includes an automatic braking function.
Also demonstrated -- with instructors behind the wheel -- were the Congestion Emergency Braking Function and new Cross Traffic Function, which extends the capability of the Active Braking Assist system.
It means full emergency braking if a collision is likely with another vehicle crossing paths from the side, along with activation of the Pre-Safe systems. It was demonstrated by pulling a soft dummy A-Class into the path of an approaching E-Class.
The E-Class adds more assisted steering functions to its safety roster. It has pedestrian detection with automatic braking but Mercedes-Benz research has found that drivers who make an evasive manoeuvre often don't turn far enough.
The new Evasive Steering Assist will recognise that an evasive manoeuvre is being attempted then make the correct steering decision before straightening the vehicle again.
It's important to note the E-Class doesn't make the decision on attempting avoidance, however it makes a better one than most drivers will manage.
The chance to get behind the wheel showcased the new Drive Pilot system with the extended capability of Distronic cruise control and Active Lane Keeping along with the new Active Lane Change Assist function.
On a multi-lane highway a tap on the indicator will prompt the car to scan its blind-spot systems and side radars to determine if a lane change is safe, and make the shift without the driver guiding the steering wheel.
The E-Class can do all of this because of its next generation multi-mode radar and stereo camera "vision" and its greatly enhanced processing power.
Long-range radar can scan as far as 250m ahead of the car and up to 80m behind. The stereo camera can see up to 500m ahead and has 3D capability out to 90m.
The car also has much enhanced side vision and a new feature called Pre-Safe Impulse Side. It rapidly inflates an air chamber in the outer side bolster of the front seats to nudge the driver or front seat occupant a little further toward in the centre of the car if a side impact is imminent, significantly reducing injury in a side impact collision.
This is a further extension of the Mercedes-Benz Pre-Safe technology that has tensioned the seat belts, adjusted seat position, closed windows and sunroofs just ahead of a predicted accident.
There's a great deal of talk about fully autonomous vehicles and "hands-off" driving.
The E-Class certainly offers a preview of where driving is headed in the future in certain conditions but it remains a "hands on the wheel" driving experience.
In fact, one of its functions will slow the vehicle to a halt if you take your hands off the wheel and then ignore a sequence of prompts. The assumption is the driver has suffered a medical problem and the car will brake to a halt.
During the Tech Day Mercedes-Benz showed what was effectively a road map of the stages towards fully autonomous vehicles. A vehicle with no assistance systems represents Level Zero while a fully autonomous driverless car sits at Level 5.
The new E-Class sits high on Level 2 (Partly Automated) with full driver responsibility. There are key regulatory and manufacturer liability issues to be solved before mainstream cars progress to Level 3 (Highly Automated) and beyond.