The hipster in me likes to be the first to do something. Right now I’m not doing anything, really. I guess making amends with a deity does count as doing something. I’m also fighting the urge to take back control of the steering wheel, because testing a new function takes full commitment. I peep at my visibly distressed photographer in the rear-view mirror. A truck cuts in to my lane up ahead and I notice that it’s travelling below the national speed limit that the Mercedes-Benz E-class I’m driving is set to. I also notice that the road is about to curve quite significantly. As one of the first people in the country to be testing this car’s self-driving chops on public roads and highway speeds, this is the moment of truth. I cross my arms and legs and put faith in the car.
Mercedes-Benz is making a statement with the latest version of its E-class premium saloon. With competitors taking major technological leaps, the German manufacturer has seen its traditional market-leading cars lose ground. That changes now. The old dog has learnt some new tricks and is delivering high-speed semi-autonomous driving to the South African market.
Vivendren Patchiappen knows the new E-class backwards. He should, because he’s the product manager for Mercedes-Benz South Africa and has literally just returned from Daimler HQ in Stuttgart, where he was extensively briefed on the car’s many capabilities. “When Connect (Mercedes-Benz’s smartphone app) arrives later this year, your smartphone will become your car key,” he teases. “You’ll be able to unlock the car via an NFC chip in the door, then place your phone on the NFC/wireless charging pad in the car and press Start.”
Connect will enable more than just that. In the June 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics we sketched the dream scenario of having your car drop you off at a shopping mall and go off to park itself. The new E-class is halfway there. Fitted with the appropriate option, the car will scan for a vacant parking spot when you drive below 30 km/h. When a space is acquired, for instance a perpendicular alley dock parking bay, the car will request how you want to enter – nose or boot first. It’s all standard automatic parking wizardry at this point, until you get out of the car, initiate the manoeuvre from your smartphone and walk away. Current legislation requires a driver to be behind the steering wheel at all times, but that’s mainly for insurance purposes. The app isn’t available in South Africa until later this year, but sitting inside the car as it negotiated its way into a particularly tight reverse parking spot was something to behold.
There’s no input from the driver after you execute the park command. Usually you’re required to shift the transmission between Drive and Reverse, but the E-class did it all on its own. Still, the initial entry was overambitious. No problem: the car corrected with a forward motion to then set up the steering angle better. It’s an astonishing improvement over even the best existing examples. Though the technology is clearly an advancement, I’m comforted by the almost human error in the movement.
THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE
To test the other autonomous functions I took the road less travelled to Hartbeespoort Dam, west of Pretoria. Patchiappen explained and demonstrated that the next evolution of Distronic+ (Merc’s name for adaptive cruise control), Drive Pilot and Steering Pilot all work in tandem to maintain lane discipline even in the absence of clear road markings. The Magaliesberg area has a healthy mix of poorly marked roads and dual carriageways to test the system to its limit. The car can brake for itself and dutifully follow the car ahead at speeds of up to 210 km/h. Lane keeping using road markings or proximity to surrounding cars and the car’s ability to negotiate bends in the road, however, have a speed limit of around 140 km/h. That’s plenty fast, according to our road officials.
In my testing I found the E-class quick to lock on to a car up ahead and willing to track it through almost all the bobbing and weaving caused by the uneven northern Gauteng B-roads. It won’t always follow the car ahead through a corner, though. If the bend is too sharp, the car surrenders control to the driver without much warning. It’s disconcerting the first few times, but you soon begin to anticipate it as you learn the system’s limits. On better maintained and clearly marked roads back towards Rosslyn, the car was happy to putter along at a reasonable 100 km/h only asking for a reassuring grasp of the steering wheel every couple kilometres to ensure the driver hasn’t drifted off.
TOP NOTCH TECH
There are enhancements to the system to be added at a later stage. These will add in road sign recognition to assist at stop streets and more easily stick to speed limits as Mercedes-Benz continues to refine. Software updates and patches to the apps and on-board services will be done over the air or at dedicated electronic service centres. The car will also connect directly to the Internet.
“The new Comand units will come equipped with an embedded SIM card and connect to data networks independently,” explains Patchiappen. This is massive news and something PM alluded to in the May 2016 issue. “We’re currently negotiating with Vodacom and will be rolling out that deal to interested customers as a value add.” To put it plainly: when you buy a new E-class and opt for an e-sim unit, you will be able to open a data contract with Vodacom for your car. It’s a dream scenario that will entirely remove the awkward and unreliable data sharing from your smartphone and open up a new world of connected apps, which already come preloaded if you pick the correct option.
My test unit wasn’t equipped with this function, but I did enjoy a fair bit of cliffcentral.com streaming when I managed to briefly share my phone’s data connection with the car. The added value of real-time diagnostics, service booking and other connected features are almost too vast to comprehend. And data logging will also arm Mercedes-Benz with valuable anonymous information about how drivers are interacting with the connected services, which can then ensure constant updating and refinements. That’s all future gazing though. Right now I’m still stuck with an ageing Comand user interface that, to its credit, has learnt a few tricks. Most important among these new tricks is the powers of Apple’s Carplay and Google’s Android Auto.
To be clear: Android Auto isn’t yet available in South Africa and has been disabled on the car by default. I’m of the belief that in-car entertainment and navigation should definitely be outsourced to the dominant mobile operating system manufacturers and it’s telling that the original automobile maker has opted to include these options. Mercedes-Benz has also taken some strides to address the flaws in the way users interact with Comand by introducing steering wheel-mounted scroll touchpads. “What actually happened with the first generation of touchpad was it was basically made as a hardware component intended to work with the existing interface. That interface wasn’t actually designed to work with a touchpad,” explains Pitchiappen. This also confirms a theory I’d long had about the frustrating inconsistencies of the Mercedes Comand system. “Now we’ve redesigned the entire design interface to work with the touchpad and the scrollers.”
I found myself reverting to the touchpad out of habit, but once I retrained myself I found the scroll trackpads very useful and in the perfect position, meeting my thumbs where they would naturally rest even when driving dynamically. On the evidence above, you can easily draw the conclusion that Mercedes-Benz has finally caught up to the market with regard to technological innovation. You’d be right, but I’d say they have surpassed the industry leaders somewhat when you account for the thoughtful additions. Remote parking is one thing, but turning your smartphone into the car key is something I didn’t expect from a German carmaker. Then there are the little touches such as optional wireless charging and a more complete version of a two-screen solution (not equipped on the test unit). The real win, however, is cutting through the Icasa red tape and finally delivering on the promise of independent embedded SIM card technology. Buying a car with a data plan like it’s a smart device is an idea I’ve been dreaming of for at least two years.
IN A NUTSHELL
I don’t enjoy the way the automatic steering can sometimes, without warning, give up midway through a tight bend, but that just means I need to keep a hand on the steering wheel. This is fine, because the current laws governing our roads require a driver to be in control of the vehicle at all times with no exceptions. There’ll surely be litigation in the future that will require a rethink about appropriating blame in the event of an incident where the car was in control, like a remote parking fender bender. But today I realised just how sophisticated that technology is already.
The e-sim will also further enhance the geo-fencing and smart tracking services Mercedes-Benz already offers on many of its cars, which will reduce the hijacking threat and assist in swift recovery should the unthinkable occur. Online radio will probably see a boost since the new infotainment system can access entertainment over IP, so the likes of Gareth Cliff will be happy.
But what makes me happy is that these innovations and advancements are being offered in an attainable package and not held hostage at the very top of the Merc pricing structure. Many more people will be able to experience the future of motoring and be part of the revolution, which will see the car earn its keep as a tool and not a toy. Mercedes is excited to deliver this product to market, but assures us that the next-generation S-class will by far surpass the technological quantum leap of this model. Now that’s an exciting prospect – except, perhaps, for chauffeurs.
This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.