Weekly Brief: Mercedes-Benz Breaks Through Crucial Hands-Free AV Barrier

Autonomous driving isn’t autonomous driving if you have to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. It’s more like babysitting.

Yet, almost every so-called “self-driving” system available to consumers today demands this of its drivers, even Autopilot from Tesla. The sole exception is the Honda Legend, which launched with much fanfare in March 2021 as the world’s first production Level 3 autonomous car, only to disappoint enthusiasts when Honda announced it would build just 100 cars for the Japanese market. Calling that a “production car” is like calling a model airplane a rocket ship.

Enter Mercedes-Benz, which announced last week that it’s planning to launch a Level 3 autonomous system named Drive Pilot for the consumer market early next year. The German Federal Motor Transport Authority has already approved Drive Pilot for deployment internationally, so long as national legislations allow it. That means Mercedes will have to apply for regulatory approval on a country-by-country basis. For now, it will start in Germany with a Level 3 2022 S-Class.

For a full breakdown of how Drive Pilot works, see Paul Myles’ excellent overview here. The Cliff Notes version is that it processes data from a bunch of sensors, on-board LiDAR and an HD map, so that drivers can take their hands off the wheel, no babysitting required. The one caveat is that Drive Pilot only engages during congested highway driving up to speeds of 37 mph.

“Drive Pilot allows the driver to take their mind off the traffic and focus on certain secondary activities, be it communicating with colleagues via In-Car Office, surfing the internet or relaxing while watching a film,” the carmaker said in a statement. That’s a remarkable quote coming from a legacy company like Mercedes-Benz. Not even Elon Musk, who’s known for brazenly breaking rules and spewing hyperbole to keep Tesla in the spotlight and its stock value soaring, has told drivers explicitly to be as distracted as they would like because their attention isn’t needed anymore when the AV tech is active. It goes to show how much confidence Mercedes has in the technology behind Drive Pilot. Its stock went up 5% in the two days following its announcement.

In other news last week, carmakers continued to push for greater control over the EV battery supply chain. Volkswagen secured three new partnerships, one with lithium producer Vulcan Energy Resources, one with battery specialist 24M Technologies and one with a company called Umicore that specializes in cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries. Volkswagen has pledged to fully electrify half of its US sales by 2030, 70% of its European sales by 2030 and its entire line-up by 2040.

Volvo expanded its partnership with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt, pledging to build a new R&D center in Gothenburg focused on advancing lithium ion battery technology. The two plan to build a battery manufacturing plant in Europe as well, starting in 2022. Volvo has pledged to put one million EVs on the road by 2025.

Finally, Toyota revealed plans to build a new $1.29Bn automotive battery manufacturing plant in North Carolina. The facility will be Toyota’s first battery plant in the US. It will employ a projected 1,750 people and produce enough battery packs for 1.2M EVs per year. Toyota has pledged to reach carbon neutrality for its vehicles and operations by 2050 and is committed to using 100% renewable energy at its new facility.


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