With so much technology packed into its elegant frame, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class poses a disturbing question: could this car be smarter than its driver
Listening to a Mercedes-Benz executive running through the catalogue of advanced technologies in the 2009 S-Class can be mildly tiring. It’s not that the delivery is boring; it’s just that there’s so much of it.
Motorists are weird animals. Some prefer a driving experience that insulates them from the world, enfolding them in an electronically enhanced womb of steel and padded leather and effectively taking care of their needs without being asked. Others opt for a tactile, dynamic interaction with car and road, always feeling in control and in touch with their environment.
Having experienced Merc’s S-Class range in a variety of driving conditions, we’d say it manages to satisfy both breeds. Whereas we enjoy the touchy-feely thing as much as the next guy, we have to admit to a feeling of reassurance when we learn about the car’s plethora of safety and driver assistance systems – most of which do their job without one being aware of it.
That said, the S-Class does a pretty good job of showing off its electronic intellect. A formidable suite of assistance and protection systems turns the car into an “intelligent” partner that can see, feel, respond reflexively and act independently to prevent accidents, or at least mitigate their effects. They employ cameras that look well ahead, monitor the car’s surroundings, interpret critical situations, then issue orders to the computer.
One example is the Adaptive Highbeam Assist, a standard safety system that recognises oncoming vehicles (or cars ahead of you) with their lights on, then controls the headlamps to ensure the best possible beam range without dazzling other road users. Then there’s Night View Assist Plus, with its infrared camera and pedestrian detection function: as soon as the system detects pedestrians on the road ahead, they are highlighted on the display to make them more noticeable. (This feature is standard on the eight- and 12-cylinder models and optional on the V6 models.)
Lane Keeping Assist is another system that “looks ahead” to keep the car’s occupants safe. A camera on the inside of the windscreen is able to recognise clear lane markings by evaluating the contrasting images of the road surface and the markings. If the vehicle leaves its lane unintentionally, the driver is warned by short vibrations of the steering wheel. Here’s where the tech enters the realm of sci-fi: unlike conventional systems of this kind, Merc’s system is able to evaluate the driver’s activities as well, and can actually determine whether the car is leaving its lane intentionally. It won’t trigger a warning if the driver accelerates before overtaking or joining a motorway, or when he brakes heavily or enters a bend.
Worried about dropping off to sleep during an especially long trip? Here’s where another clever system – called Attention Assist – kicks in. The 2009 S-Class is equipped with a sensitive antenna that monitors the attention level of the driver and warns him when he becomes drowsy. Once the evaluation electronics (we’re talking more than 70 different parameters here) recognise the steering behaviour pattern that typically indicates the onset of drowsiness, a warning signal is sounded and the words “ATTENTION ASSIST” appear in the instrument cluster.
Another useful safety system, known as Pre-Safe, swings into action if the driver is distracted and fails to recognise the immediate danger of a rear-end collision. Without any input from the driver, the system activates maximum braking pressure about 0,6 seconds before what is now recognised as an unavoidable accident – an emergency action that can significantly reduce the severity of the impact.
There’s more, of course – much more. Active Body Control reduces the effects of crosswinds; Torque Vectoring Brake provides extra safety at the physical limits (for example, when you enter a bend way too quickly); Distronic Plus, a radar-based proximity control system that automatically helps you maintain a set distance from the vehicle ahead… the list is long and impressive, and we haven’t even started on the comfort and entertainment features.
Is the S-Class indeed smarter than its driver? Does it matter?