As Henry Ford is long quoted (or misquoted, depending on who you believe), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” But whether or not the old marketing chestnut is real, the 2024 Mercedes-Benz EQS and its available Drive Pilot Level 3 advanced driver assistance system prove that sometimes, customers have the right idea. Instead of faster horses, we’re on the cusp of horses that do the riding for us.
That’s because Drive Pilot is the first-ever hands-off, eyes-off active traffic jam assistant, allowing the person behind the wheel to hand over the reins entirely to the car. Suddenly, that arduous slog through freeway gridlock can now be used to scroll YouTube, read a good book, or play road trip games with passengers. Taking your eyes off the road to watch the latest ASMR videos might feel counterintuitive and reckless at first, but as I learned in a 50-minute highway drive between Santa Monica and Mid-Wilshire – an eight-mile jaunt, by the way – the Drive Pilot system effortlessly assuages any concern.
Education Is Fundamental
Part of the confidence that the Level 3 system inspires comes from the learning process Mercedes forces on its owners in order to use it. To activate the system, I had to watch an eight-minute video on the EQS’ Hyperscreen infotainment display, which showed the various situations under which Drive Pilot can work, the circumstances that would require me to take over as the driver, and ways to override or deactivate the system if desired. The infotainment and gauge cluster also provide abundant information on vehicle surroundings and how to use Drive Pilot, easing some of the automation anxiety.
For starters, the video taught me that the system only operates if the car is on a highway that’s been mapped using high-definition, centimeter-accurate GPS, a vast improvement over traditional, meter-accurate GPS. The roadway surface must also have well-marked lane lines, and there must be a lead vehicle in your lane. Drive Pilot won’t exceed 40 miles per hour, so it’s only usable in moderate or heavy traffic, and it’ll only work in fair weather and during daytime hours. Such a system – known as “conditional automation” – requires the driver to be ready to take over if prompted, but otherwise, that time sitting in traffic is yours to enjoy.
Drive Pilot, which will be available on certain 2024 EQS and S-Class sedans in California and Nevada, builds from Mercedes’ existing Driver Assistance package containing Distronic adaptive cruise control with active steering and lane centering. That Level 2 system features a variety of sensors, like front-facing radar to judge following distances, cameras to detect lane markings, and short-distance sonar for parking maneuvers.
However, cars equipped with Drive Pilot also receive a sophisticated lidar array in the grille, rear-facing cameras and microphones that identify approaching emergency vehicles, and moisture sensors in the wheel wells that monitor road conditions. Furthermore, a high-definition GPS antenna on the roof provides that aforementioned accuracy, compensating even for continental drift – years from now, the system will keep the car centered on the road, even after latitude and longitude have shifted by a few feet.
There are also a few minor alterations to the cabin, most obviously the activation buttons and indicator lights on the steering wheel. A small white light on the buttons illuminates when Drive Pilot is available, and when activated, the striated indicators glow a luminescent teal. Ditto the buttons for the automatic climate control, a prerequisite as Drive Pilot will ensure the windows are free of condensation at all times in case the person behind the wheel needs to take over.
Easiest. Traffic Jam. Ever.
So how’s it all come together once you’ve watched the informational video and learned how it works? I hit the 10 and headed west to find out. In order to use Drive Pilot, you first must have the Level 2 driver assistance features activated – that’s adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and lane departure warning. Once that’s done, the car will scan the road and surroundings to ensure they qualify for Drive Pilot activation, at which point those little thumb buttons will glow white.
Press either one of them, then accept the driver information message that you’ve gotta be ready to take over at any time, and the system will activate, as indicated by the teal markers on the wheel and climate controls. Suddenly, the minor side-to-side movements from the camera-based lane departure prevention disappear completely, as the car is now relying on its high-def map of the road to handle steering inputs. The occasional surging of a radar-based cruise system is gone, replaced with much more genteel applications of the throttle and brakes thanks to the sophisticated lidar array that detects traffic from all angles.
Speaking of, the lidar and GPS work in tandem to accommodate for zipper merges and lane changes, leaving just enough room for friendly traffic but not so much for opportunist swoopers to take advantage of your generosity. It must be said that while Mercedes’ advanced Distronic system allows for automatic lane changes – approach a rolling roadblock and the car will actively move to the left to pass and then come back to the right as appropriate – Drive Pilot only works in one lane. But that smoothness makes it all the easier to enjoy the amenities found in the infotainment system.
During Drive Pilot operation the person behind the wheel isn’t a driver, but a “fallback-ready user,” according to SAE regulations. That means that distraction is no longer a dirty word, and the infotainment system will allow access to its built-in YouTube app, a variety of video games, and even Zoom group meetings. Current regulations in California and Nevada still prohibit the use of mobile handheld devices behind the wheel, so don’t start scrolling Instagram just yet, but even so, there’s no harm in watching Ken Burns bootlegs on YouTube from start to finish – insofar as the rules of the road are concerned.
The dubious legality of said bootlegs aside, whatever media you consume had better be stimulating enough to keep you awake and alert. If the system’s cabin-monitoring infrared cameras detect you’ve fallen asleep, it will sound a chime and send a notification to take over the driving situation. These alerts will grow louder and more persistent the longer it takes to respond, to the point that the car will gradually stop within its lane and activate the emergency flashers, notifying surrounding traffic of a potential medical issue inside the car. A ghost ship for the modern era, if you will.
But as long as I remained alert and buckled into the driver’s seat, the car didn’t ask for my attention once during my time with Drive Pilot engaged. My front-seat passenger played Shuffle Puck with me on the infotainment screen, we watched YouTube videos, and I even pulled open some manufacturer literature to review the car’s features. All the while, the EQS glided along smoothly, following the flow of traffic better than I’d be able to do with my flawed, human hands and brain. Furthermore, the system should only expand in usability – speed ranges, different roads, et al – once legislation and GPS mapping becomes more inclusive.
A Smarter Horse
Conditional automation is still a far cry from the self-driving vehicles we were promised decades ago, but no automaker but Mercedes has achieved Level 3 driver assistance in the US just yet. The Drive Pilot system will only be offered on certain versions of the EQS and S-Class sold in California and Nevada, but Mercedes says that Level 3–capable cars won’t carry an additional upcharge on their sticker prices over equivalent L2 cars.
What will cost extra is the subscription to use Drive Pilot, an eyebrow-raising $2,500 a year through the Mercedes Me app store. That’s not a huge increase over the S-Class and EQS’ $115,650 and $105,550 respective starting prices, but it is a recurring cost, not a one-time deal.
Still, for folks who regularly sit in traffic, the ability to take back that time may be worth the added $208.34 in the monthly budget. I’ll admit I was skeptical of Drive Pilot’s efficacy at first – remember, Mercedes’ Level 2 system still hasn’t caught on to the hands-free convenience of GM’s Super Cruise or Ford’s Blue Cruise systems – but the L3 ADAS is far more impressive than I expected. Smooth inputs, an appropriate but not overwhelming amount of information, and that game of Shuffle Puck make the EQS with Drive Pilot the smartest horse I’ve ever ridden.