California has become the second US state to certify Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving technology after Nevada in January.
State regulators have approved the system for use in California in standard-production vehicles – EQS Sedan and S-Class – making Mercedes-Benz the first car manufacturer with authorization to introduce such a SAE Level 3 system in a production car for use on public freeways in America's most populous state.
Drive Pilot will be available in the US as an option for 2024 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and 2024 EQS Sedan models, with the first cars equipped with the system to be delivered to customers in late 2023.
After gaining certification in Nevada and California, Mercedes-Benz has the ambition to further expand availability of Drive Pilot to additional markets in the future.
"Mercedes-Benz DRIVE PILOT is the world's only SAE Level 3 system with internationally valid type approval. It builds on a very robust foundation, setting new industry standards. DRIVE PILOT uses a highly sophisticated vehicle architecture based on redundancy with a multitude of sensors enabling comfortable and safe conditionally automated driving. The certification by the authorities in California and in Nevada once again confirms that redundancy is the safe and thus the right approach."
Markus Schäfer, Mercedes‑Benz Group AG Chief Technology Officer
It's worth noting that while Drive Pilot-equipped vehicles will drive everywhere in the US, Level 3 autonomy will only be available in areas of Nevada and California where it is legal to do so.
For now, those areas include the interstate highway that connects Southern California to Nevada, as well as highways in the Bay Area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego.
The system can be activated on these freeway sections where there is high traffic density. In these circumstances, Drive Pilot can offer to take over the driving task, but only at speeds up to 40 mph (64 km/h). Mercedes claims the speed restriction is mostly due to government regulation, as Drive Pilot is currently designed for high-traffic settings.
That said, the carmaker claims the SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving technology has the technical capabilities to function at higher speeds. Mercedes-Benz says its ultimate goal for the system is to allow speeds of up to 80 mph (130 km/h) in its final iteration. To achieve this ultimate goal, the company has partnered with strong players like NVIDIA and Luminar.
While Drive Pilot is active, the driver can take their mind off the traffic and focus on certain secondary activities such as reading a book, using their mobile, or accessing applications on the vehicle's main display that are otherwise blocked when driving – all this while the system controls the speed and distance, and guides the vehicle within its lane.
Unlike Tesla's Level 2 Autopilot and Level 2+ Full Self-Driving Beta function, Drive Pilot allows drivers to legally take both their hands and eyes off the road while the vehicle is in motion. However, the driver must always be ready to take control of the car, so they can't fall asleep at the wheel.