The 2017 Mercedes E-Class, or What Happens When Autonomous Tech Goes Wrong

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The 2017 Mercedes E-Class, or What Happens When Autonomous Tech Goes Wrong

I felt a bit like an undercover reporter, even though I identified myself with the salesperson. I even told her my whole story—that I’ve tested every recent car with autonomous technology including the Volvo XC90, the Tesla Model S sedan, and many others. I mentioned how I’ve had a ton of experience as a passenger in cutting edge cars as well, including taking a ride in the Cruise Automation test car, a few trips around a track in a self-driving Audi TTS, and even did a few laps in a parking lot in the infamous Stanley autonomous car, the one that started it all.

“I’m not so sure you can call this autonomous…” I said.

I was driving a 2017 Mercedes-Benz E300 on a highway in Bloomington, Minn. All of the new Drive Pilot features were activated, including lane-keeping and automated steering. I know Mercedes-Benz doesn’t mince words about this robotic tech, that it requires you to pay attention and keep your hands on the wheel. At the same time, there’s also no question the German automaker has a stake in the self-driving resolution. Recently, an ad for the car was pulled to “avoid driver confusion” even though the commercial made some bold claims like this one:

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself? Ready or not, the future is here.”

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The phrase “drive itself” can be interpreted in many ways, but the guy driving a hot pink Honda Civic, a custom job that definitely stood out in traffic, didn’t seem to care. I winced, the salesperson winced, and everyone around us winced when the car swerved in my lane. Even the engineers responsible for the self-driving tech in Germany would have winced, because the E300 kept barreling along like nothing had happened.

This is a problem for all cars with assisted driving features. There are just too many conditions that come up on the road. A car swerves, a tire pops, the FedEx truck next to you slowly starts to merge before it’s really the best time to do so.

Note that I’m not really dissing Mercedes-Benz per se. I’m dissing the entire automotive industry. Self-driving tech is as much a buzzword as a future reality. Ford recently announced they’d have the technology working in 2021. Google seems to have no plans to make a production car anytime soon, and even Tesla has backed off the autonomous driving claims and now shows warnings if you’re not paying attention.

A fatal crash involving a Model S in Florida has made everyone more aware of the dangers involved with having the car do all of the thinking for you.

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Yet, the E300 wasn’t really helping. It tended to rock back and forth a bit in the lane, rather than mimicking the driving pattern of an actual human driver. In a Model S, the car can drive on its own all the way across town. I tested one on the exact same highway.

The E300 is actively looking for other cars and shows an icon above the steering wheel to show you if it is a truck or a car. (In my test, the icon ironically looked exactly like the truck right down to the color scheme.) The E-Class, however, just does not seem as savvy. That might seem like a first-world problem, but when lives are on the line, technological savviness isn’t just a luxury. After a few minutes, I turned it off.