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We try out the first legal level 3 automated driving system in the US

The front sensor panel of a Mercedes-Benz EQS
Enlarge / The front panel of a Drive Pilot-equipped EQS conceals its lidar and other sensors.


LOS ANGELES—Mercedes-Benz has never shied away from new technology. Historically, the carmaker has been an early adopter and developer of systems such as antilock brakes, stability control, airbags, and adaptive cruise control. With its EQ line of all-electric vehicles well underway, Mercedes-Benz is now making a push toward automated driving.

We sampled the new Drive Pilot system, which will be available on the 2024 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS sedans, on some of the most congested highways in Los Angeles. It’s the first level 3 automated driving system approved for use in the US, but initially it will only be available and active in California and Nevada. Drive Pilot allows for hands-free highway driving similar to other systems, such as Super Cruise from GM, BlueCruise from Ford, or Highway Assistant from BMW, but goes further by allowing the driver to also take their eyes off the road.

A defined operation design domain

Certain conditions must be satisfied before you can activate Drive Pilot, an important concept in autonomous driving known as the “operational design domain.”

For Drive Pilot to activate, the vehicle must be traveling no faster than 40 mph (65 km/h), it must have a vehicle in front to follow, road conditions must be dry and clear, the lane markings must be detectable, and the route must be pre-mapped by the system. These limitations mean Drive Pilot is for use in heavy stop-and-go traffic, appropriate for the bumper-to-bumper congestion of LA’s I-10 Freeway, but not free-flowing highways. The plan is to increase the speed limiter in the future, though.

When the steering wheel lights are green, the system is ready to go.
Enlarge / When the steering wheel lights are green, the system is ready to go.


We started from Santa Monica in unusually light traffic that was flowing well above 40 mph, so we engaged the Mercedes’ hands-on (level 2) adaptive cruise control paired with lane centering as a primer. This allowed us to experience Mercedes’ new Automatic Lane Change feature. As we approached well behind a slower-moving vehicle, the system chimed and displayed a passing maneuver illustration in the instrument panel. A second later, the turn signal activated, and the big sedan smoothly moved into the left lane to pass. This system is available between 40 and 85 mph (136 km/h) and obviously only when the conditions are safe.

No more than a few miles into our drive, traffic began to slow enough for Drive Pilot. Once the speedometer dropped to 40 mph, an illuminated white stripe appeared at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions of the steering wheel’s Drive Pilot buttons, telling us the system was ready. A quick tap of one of those buttons and they turn to green, and you can take your hands off the wheel.

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