I was invited by The Drive’s Alex Roy to be witness to and help document the Drive Pilot system on the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E Class sedan (Please click HERE to view his most up-to-date review on this system. He writes a lot better than I do).
Having previously driven Tesla’s Autopilot for only a few days, I knew off the bat that I wouldn’t be the expert in the car and I should rather use my unfamiliarity of autonomous driving to my advantage; I didn’t really have any preconceived notions of the Drive Pilot system regardless of what Roy had written.
From cobblestone roads in DUMBO to the highways on Long Island, the E Class was put through its paces and tested it in the most favorable conditions and throughout varying levels of difficult roadways and neighborhoods. All of the knobs were turned, dials twisted and buttons pressed; every setting was tested to truly rule out any incompetence from the inability to understand a system’s settings or preferences. And so the day began.
Problem #1: The radar/camera system (DISTRONIC/Distance Pilot), if it can find a car, will follow that car off an exit or cut off others to keep the car in view
We started out in SoHo just after 10 AM and made our way out to Red Hook in Brooklyn. Roy wanted to test and document the system for the entire journey.
ANY driver-assist system uses optical sensors to read lanes, radar/ultrasonic sensors to determine distance of things around the car, cameras to monitor distance as well, etc... A large majority of NYC has so many imperfections in the roads — especially fading/nonexistent lane painting – that it would make this test very hard to test some of the systems.
It seemed to follow the vehicles in front of us pretty well at times, but sometimes too well. It would lock onto a vehicle in front of us and follow its direction of travel, even if It meant drifting into other drivers’ lanes to keep pace with the truck in front of us.
According to page 165 of the user manual, it states: “If the system detects that there are no lane markings, it uses the vehicle ahead as a reference up to a speed of 80 mph.” Great, but what if that vehicle takes a detour, drives on the shoulder to avoid the horrors of the BQE, or is just a general asshole on the road? You’re now an accomplice by DISTRONIC proxy.
Often, the LCD dashboard display would indicate it lost sight of the 11” truck in front of us, even while stopped at a red light. Mercedes claims the 3D camera can see up to 70m away, with the 2D camera at 90m. It struggled at 2m sometimes. Other times, it kept a view of the vehicle in front to those distances easily.
Later, while driving on the BQE and stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the system changed lanes and followed the van in front of us. However, the driver was going to an off-ramp but that wasn’t the route to take. That’s where the LKAS and LCA came into play.
Problem #2: Lane Keep Assist (LKAS) & Lane Change Assist (LCA)
The lane-keep assist (LKAS) system seemed to do anything but keep our lane. Both the adaptive and standard settings were applied; neither seemed to yield somewhat safe results in my opinion. Straight road with well-paved markers? Sure, it does what it’s marketed to.
However, with a slight bend on the highway, the car halfway over into the lane to our right. No warnings. No beeps, chimes, dings or visual alerts warned us of any sort of issue. Had a vehicle been in the lane next to us, we would have certainly hit it.
The system was further tested with the adaptive setting, which allows for more user-input. It was done to combine blindspot monitoring system and LKAS and see how they would interact with one another.
The blindspot audible warnings only came on with the push of the turn signals. If the Merc was purposely drifted into someone’s lane or the LKAS did, the car either didn’t see or care about what was to the left or right of us. Or if it did, I certainly had no idea.
Lane Change Assist did seem to work as advertised in terms of function, no complaints here on my end. While the Drive Pilot system is engaged a push of the turn signal stalk and the car will scan the lane you’re looking to move to, determine it’s safe and make the change for you.
Problem 3: DISTRONIC/Automatic Emergency Braking was a little late to the game
Go to page 164 of the user manual for the car and you’ll find this: Distance Pilot DISTRONIC does not react: to people or animals, to stationary obstacles in the road e.g. stopped or parked vehicles, to stationary obstacles on the road e.g. stopped or parked vehicles if conditions are not sufficient to enable detection.
AS A RESULT, DISTANCE PILOT DISTRONIC MAY NEITHER GIVE WARNINGS NOR INTERVENE IN SUCH SITUATIONS. Distance Pilot DISTRONIC cannot always clearly identify other road users and complex traffic situations. In these conditions, Distance PILOT DISTRONIC may: give an unnecessary warning and then brake the vehicle, neither give a warning nor intervene, accelerate or brake unexpectedly.
This is all technical and legal writing to prepare you for the who-knows-what the car may do when you engage the systems. And the warnings are very accurate. It had no issue reading the BMW X6 at 70m in front of us on a bumpy highway.
But while traveling at the speed limit towards a red light with cars ahead, the Merc didn’t seem to care. No noises, no notification from the car that something was ahead. It finally started to brake before a human foot took the pedal further down.
Page 159 of the user manual states that the system brakes your vehicle with up to 50% of the maximum possible braking power. If great deceleration performance is required, a visual and acoustic warning is given and you must intervene yourself.
NOPE. No chimes, dings or visual alerts appeared during a time where an accident was imminent.
Overview: Not worth the $10K+ for Drive Pilot
There are no audible notifications to alert the driver of these changes. That’s not good. It’s a driver-assistance system, not a fully self-driving car (labeled as Level 4 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). But between the pulled advertising claiming a very similar experience and claims that it is just as good (if not better) than Tesla’s Autopilot, I just can’t write that it is.
These systems are marketed to make you a safer driver or at least to make the driving experience safer, relying a large part on driver skill. You could be Chris Harris and you still could get into an accident with Autopilot, Drive Pilot, Palm Pilot. These systems cannot account for OTHER drivers’ skills but can do their best to reduce any threat with the help of their owners. Or at least, that’s what their marketed to do.
Spend that money for the systems and take a defense driving course for the next 50+ years, hire an intern to answer your emails and texts for you while you drive or even hire a chauffeur for you at that point in price. 90% of the time, I was happier driving the great E Class as the sole driver.
TL;DR: The Drive Pilot system made the drive more confusing, leaving the driver guessing a majority of the time whether or not the car was going to react to very clear situations in front of it. I felt safer with the systems disabled; driving with the system engaged added too many uncertainties. The only time it worked well was in crawling highway traffic with perfectly-paved lanes.
Disclaimer: This is my own independent review from a morning experience with Editor-at-Large Alex Roy of The Drive. This opinion does not represent the views of Roy, The Drive or anyone else but myself. The 2017 E-Class was provided by Mercedes-Benz as a result of one of his recent pieces comparing Tesla’s Autopilot to Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot.