As we approach a blind corner on a twisty mountain road above Sunnyvale, there’s a moment when I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a pre-production Mercedes Benz S-Class and I’m not not sure that the updated Intelligent Drive will really slow the car down in time for what’s up ahead. It does, and continues to do so for every corner it encounters. It’s an impressive step in the automaker’s march towards an autonomous vehicle.
Introduced at the Shanghai Auto Show in April, the new S-Class sports comes with the automaker’s latest version of Intelligent Drive. The update brings new features to Active Distance Assist Distronic (adaptive cruise control) and Active Steering. Steering is now smarter about automatic lane changes with only tap on the stalk needed to initiate the feature. If the car doesn’t find an open space after 10 seconds, it’ll abort its mission. But more impressive is Distronic’s ability to grab data from Mercedes’ mapping partner, Here, and adjust the speed of the car as it enters and exits a corner. The driver doesn’t have to use the brake and accelerator. Just turn the wheel and enjoy the ride.
The software determines the speed the S-Class should take a corner based on traffic, its current speed, and data supplied by Here provide the angle and tilt of the corner. The result is an impressive use of braking and accelerating that’s smoother than expected. Actually, it was even a better experience than when I’m the passenger while some of my human friends drive mountain roads.
Active Distance Assist Distronic works in conjunction with the vehicle’s current drive mode. In sport mode, it aggressively winds its way around corners. In comfort mode, it’s a relaxing drive. In eco mode, it’s painfully slow as it links corners together in the chillest way possible. If you’re going to be paying S-Class prices for a car, you should be able to use a feature as you see fit. Unfortunately, there’s no word on pricing and while some Distronic features will be standard, some of them will cost extra.
Overall the latest version of Intelligent Drive is a solid step towards the company’s goal of full autonomy. But the company (like all automakers) is adamant that the driver still needs to be in control and paying attention.
Still, if you’re not that jazzed on giving your car the power to accelerate and brake outside of the highway, you can’t deny that the S-Class’ safety features will probably keep you out of more than a few fender benders. There’s emergency stop, brake, evasive steering assistance, an infrared camera that detects humans and large animals at night and displays them on the dash — all meant to keep you and your passengers safe.
Like the current S-Class the vehicle also comes with car-to-car (and eventually infrastructure) communications so you’re vehicle will know what’s happening ahead even if you don’t.
By the end of the ride, I was confident enough in the system to stop checking the driver’s feet to see if he really wasn’t using the brake and accelerator. Even in sport mode, when it felt the car was entering a turn a little too quickly, I stopped trying to stomp on the invisible brake on the floorboard or brace myself. The car knew what it was doing and I was comfortable with that. It’ll be years before Mercedes (or any other automaker for that matter) has a fully autonomous car on the road, but for now, those that can afford an S-Class will have one the closest things that’s on the road.