CARS.COM — Every new Mercedes-Benz has a heavy focus on safety technology, but the new 2017 E-Class does more than provide new systems; it sets the overall bar higher with some new tech that’s truly astonishing.
All the stuff you’d expect in a German luxury car is there, such as adaptive cruise control, plenty of airbags, and the Pre-safe predictive occupant protection system that tightens belts and helps brake the car more aggressively than you otherwise might in the event it detects an impending collision. But there is a host of optional systems that add to the experience, some of which start to incorporate autonomous driving technology.
The E300’s adaptive cruise control now can be had with something called Drive Pilot, which not only maintains distance from the car in front of you, but also can follow that car through curves. Steering Pilot includes an active lane change assist — once you’ve set the cruise control, you can use the turn signals to make the car change lanes without your intervention — if the car doesn’t detect a vehicle in the adjacent lane (or one approaching at a high rate of speed, using its long-range rear-facing radar).
A new side radar system is available, which detects an impending side impact and then takes a couple of extra steps: It will rapidly inflate a bladder in the front seat sides that will push you a few inches away from the side of the impact to reduce the shock on your body. It also plays a sound through the audio system to prime muscles in your middle ear, minimizing the shock to your sensitive auditory organs from the loud blasts of airbags and the impact itself. I experienced this “pink noise” myself during my drive, when a tour bus came around a bend and the car decided an impact was likely; it was just a short burst of static over the audio system, but it was fascinating to actually experience one of these automatic safety systems in action.
But wait, there’s more. The Evasive Steering Assist helps you steer around obstacles at low, urban speeds, such as a pedestrian that might have walked out in front of you. Emergency Stop Assist will activate your hazard lights and bring your car to a safe halt if it detects that you haven’t touched the steering wheel in a while, assuming you’ve had a medical emergency. Active Brake Assist will brake the car if it detects an impending collision and you haven’t reacted, while the Speed Limit Pilot automatically adjusts your speed to the local speed limit when it changes along the highway. It can be overridden manually.
It has to be said: It doesn’t all work perfectly. During a three-hour highway drive from Carmel Valley, Calif., to San Francisco International Airport, I sampled all of these technologies. The Drive Pilot works well under most conditions, and it even lets you take your hands off the wheel and steers for you for up to 60 seconds, but it sometimes loses its place, such as cresting a rise where the highway also bends. At lower speeds it failed three times to detect a vehicle that was merging into my lane, causing me to hit the brakes to avoid a low-speed collision. And the automatic speed limit adjustment on the cruise control dropped me from 70 to 40 mph when I entered a zone that had trucks exiting the highway for a weight station check — where the truck speed limit was a posted 40 mph.
While these steps toward greater autonomy slowly are being introduced system-by-system in order to familiarize people with the coming day in which their car will feature fully autonomous systems, it’s good to remember that they are still very much assistance systems, meant to help you drive, not drive for you. The day is coming when cars will drive themselves with no help from us, and steps like these will get us there sooner rather than later.