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How next-gen tech turns the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class into your digital co-pilot

It takes a certain amount of peace of mind to trust a machine with a simple task; it takes a lot more serenity to trust it with your life. And yet, I briefly took my hands off the steering wheel at 80 mph on a scenic Austrian freeway and instructed the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class to pass a fifth-generation Volkswagen Golf.

Even the most optimistic players in the automotive industry admit mass-produced self-driving cars are at least a few years away from becoming a reality, but everyone agrees the so-called “robot cars” are much closer than they’ve ever been. The tenth-generation of the E-Class is a testament to the progress made since Mercedes engineers began developing ways humans can delegate the task of driving when it becomes tedious, dangerous, or just plain bland.

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Mercedes has been experimenting with self-driving cars for over three decades. The Stuttgart-based brand teamed up with European authorities to launch a project named PROMETHEUS on October 1, 1986. The acronym stood for “program for a European traffic of highest efficiency and unprecedented safety.” In more straight-forward terms, Mercedes and its partners wanted to make cars safer, to improve the flow of traffic in big cities, and to reduce harmful emissions – the very same issues that manufacturers are trying to solve today.

Progress report

A lot has changed since PROMETHEUS first made headlines. The E-Class’ most basic semi-automated system is adaptive cruise control, which is known as Distronic Plus in Mercedes-speak. It maintains a pre-set speed like all cruise control systems do, but it automatically adjusts the car’s speed if it detects slower traffic ahead. From the E’s point of view, slower traffic can mean anything from a rear-engined Beetle struggling to pass a truck up a hill to a full-blown traffic jam. Distronic Plus safely brings the car to a full stop if needed, and all it takes to return to the previously set speed when traffic starts moving again is a gentle tap of the gas pedal.

Steering Assist doesn’t need lane markings to keep the car on its intended path.

Adaptive cruise control is complemented by a feature named Steering Assist that turns the wheels to keep the car from drifting out of its lane. The steering wheel-shaped icon located on the bottom left corner of the digital instrument cluster turns green when the function is available. Interestingly, Steering Assist doesn’t need lane markings to keep the car on its intended path.

“The Steering Pilot can continue to intervene actively by taking surrounding vehicles and parallel structures into account, even if the lines are unclear or missing, for example in a construction zone,” a Mercedes spokesman told Digital Trends.

Finally, the newest bit of tech in the E-Class is called Active Lane-Change Assist. The E moves into the next lane when the driver activates the turn signal in the direction of the desired lane change for at least two seconds – assuming the coast is clear. If it’s not, a red icon appears in the mirror and the cars stays in its lane. Mercedes points out Advanced Lane-Change Assist merely helps the driver change lanes; it doesn’t turn the E-Class into an autonomous car.

Combined, these high-tech features make driving more relaxing and safer, especially on long trips. I was impressed with the smoothness and accuracy of each system. The E-Class immediately reacts to new information such as a slow truck merging into its lane, yet its braking and steering inputs are calm and predictable. If they were too quick, the system would be difficult to trust; if they were too slow, Steering Assist would be frustrating to use on a regular basis. Getting it just right was crucial, but it took a lot of fine-tuning, according to company officials.

Mercedes stresses the driver needs to keep hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road. Autonomous technology isn’t ready to hit the market yet, and semi-automated tech doesn’t turn your daily commute into the ideal time to practice banjo. That’s why Steering Assist emits audible and visual warnings if it detects the driver’s hands are off the wheel for too long, and it turns off entirely if the driver doesn’t respond in a timely manner.

Still, the brightest minds from the auto and tech industries are working to ensure autonomous technology hits the streets sooner than many expect.

“An automated valet parking feature or a car2go that comes driving to you whenever you need it are conceivable in a not-so-distant future. We expect this technology to really take off between 2020 and 2025,” the company told me.

Automakers need to test fully automated cars for millions of miles before the technology can be safely put in the hands of the general public. Additionally, governments all over the world need to agree on an effective way to regulate self-driving cars, and the road infrastructure needs to be upgraded in a lot of places.

In short: we’re not ready for autonomy yet, but we’re getting there. And until automated driving becomes widespread, intelligent cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class are a stepping stone between current and upcoming technology.