Saturday 24 February 2018

The Mercedes that drove me 125km... on its own

A few kinks but car drives itself with ease

The Mercedes E220d
The Mercedes E220d
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

I may or may not have made a little bit of history. To a large extent that is a sideshow. The truly important thing is that I was behind the wheel of a car that, mostly, drove itself for 125km on Irish roads.

I mean, I didn't have to steer, touch the brakes or accelerator. Just sat there and, mostly, did nothing.

I've done 'semi-autonomous' driving abroad, but nothing of this duration. Certainly nothing that felt as significant as driving from north Dublin to well into Northern Ireland. Only a lunch appointment prevented us from going further.

In every other respect, the car I was in was a perfectly normal Mercedes E-Class diesel (E220d Avantgarde). There were no bells or whistles to signify anything unusual. All it had extra was the Drive Pilot system that lets it drive itself for long periods. Drive Pilot costs from around €4,500; the entry-level E220d Avantgarde automatic costs from €52,850. So the total package comes to €57,350.

My travelling companion loves his motoring history and was struck by the coincidence of our 'achievement'. It was 128 years ago when the first, the very first, Mercedes was driven for 100km-plus on a public road. Needless to say it was not a 'self drive'. But it was driven by a woman who wanted to make a major point.

As you are probably aware, Karl Benz patented the first automobile in January 1886. In August 1888, his wife, Bertha, in an attempt to promote her husband's achievement, drove the newly-constructed Patent-Motorwagen No 3 from Mannheim to her birthplace, Pforzheim, in south-west Germany (around 104km).

Without her husband's knowledge, she took her two sons Richard (14) and Eugen (15), and wrote their trip into the history books by becoming the first person to drive a car over such a distance.

On her way, she had to stop at pharmacies for petroleum solvent solution to keep the car going.

I had no such privations to endure. My only interruption was to pay at the Drogheda toll plaza.

In the course of our drive, I won't say we didn't have a deep-breath moment or two when I was a split second from jamming on the brakes or grabbing the steering wheel. And I won't say there weren't a couple of times I had to steer just a little to keep us on track - especially where the road 'widened' to accommodate cars merging on to the motorway.

But it was one of those occasions you mentally note as significant. A line was crossed somehow. We hear so much about 'driverless' cars and what they will be able to do. The fact is a car like the E-Class - and others - is perfectly capable of 'driving' (mostly) itself in this country.

Basically the system monitors everything (360 degrees) around you, gathering, collating information and the car reacts accordingly. The only reassurance it seeks - and prompts for - is that you place your hands on the steering wheel every 60 seconds so it knows you are there. Because (and this is critical) you are in ultimate control. The day will come when we'll be able to send an empty car on errands. But for the foreseeable future, we will be on board, doing little really, but ultimately in control.

A few kilometres up the M1, I settled. I began to trust the system. It recognised, and stayed within, the speed limit. It kept steady and, but for my desire to eat, would have got us all the way to Belfast without me putting a foot near a brake or accelerator.

For me, there was one salient point: it was much better/safer in keeping good distance to the vehicle in front than I'd be. And it, mostly, tucked well into the lane. In the midst of our awe at the technology, it is easy to overlook the fact that a core reason for it is safety (the E-Class, and others, can also take over and brake heavily in an emergency).

Frankly, the only danger is that you'd feel falsely safe in taking a phone call or texting. We chatted, looked forward to lunch, spoke about cars and summers on the farm. I was relaxed but, I hope, quietly vigilant.

Of course it won't work as well on twisty narrow mountain roads as I discovered abroad. And there are kinks to be ironed out, especially where the road widens to let other cars merge. Neither will it change lanes automatically here when you indicate - due to legal issues (okay in Germany). And I would like larger, more graphic indications on the dash of what it is going on. But it did an awful lot that was right.

I'd have to say it's the first time I truly realised the future is already with us.

Facts & figures

E220d Avantgarde Automatic with Drive Pilot. E220d Avantgarde auto costs €52,850 (E200d here in December, €2,000 less).

Drive Pilot system costs around €4,500 (depends on engine size/C02). System includes full-speed adaptive cruise control (ACC), lane-keep assist (LKAS), lane-change assist (LCA - not allowed here yet).

At core of 'Pilot' are radar sensors that can read road ahead and behind. Stereoscopic 3D camera reads road and vehicles up to 70m ahead.

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