by ANDREW HEINZMAN
Mercedes-Benz is now the first and only automaker to win regulatory approval for a Level 3 autonomous driving system, beating out Tesla, Waymo, and other rivals. Drivers on the German autobahn can kick back and take their hands off the wheel using Mercedes’ upcoming Drive Pilot feature, which debuts in 2022.
Before you celebrate, there are two big footnotes to this story. Drive Pilot is limited to 37 MPH (60 KPH) on the autobahn, so you can only use it in traffic. Additionally, the feature only works in areas selected by Mercedes-Benz and the German government. (These geofenced areas total about 8080 miles or 13,000 kilometers.)
So, you can’t go hands-free while blazing down the autobahn at 80+ MPH. But you can take your hands off the wheel to play on your phone or make a sandwich while in heavy traffic. And that’s a very big deal—not just because sitting in traffic sucks, but because this is a relatively safe and consistent environment for automakers to collect real-world autonomous driving data.
Proponents of self-driving are obviously tired of these strict rules, but to be frank, they exist for good reason. Autonomous cars are still imperfect and unproven, and even if they can safely navigate traffic or follow basic laws (which isn’t always the case), they need to account for pedestrians and cyclists, and they need to use small movements to communicate their intentions with other human drivers. Slow-moving sections of highway are a very good starting point.
There’s no word on when Tesla or other companies will gain hands-free autonomous driving approval, or when the U.S. government will allow these systems on its highways. But we expect most countries to follow the example set today by Germany. Over time, regulators may allow hands-free driving at higher speeds or expand its use outside of pre-approved areas.
If you’d like to go hands-free on the autobahn, you need to wait until next. That’s when Mercedes-Benz will debut its new Drive Pilot feature in its S-Class and EQS sedans.