Let go of the wheel, the car takes over!

Today, only Mercedes is able to offer models homologated in Europe for level 3 autonomous driving. Mercedes-Benz AG, Communications & Marketing, photo by Deniz Calagan on behalf of Mercedes-Benz AG/Mercedes-Benz AG

Since September 1st, level 3 autonomous driving has been allowed in France. At the moment, however, there is still no car that drives alone on our roads.

Among the six stages of driving automation specified by SAE International (society of automobile engineers), level 3 is the first to allow stages of real driving delegation without any action from the driver. This shows the importance of the step taken with the opening of European rules that allow its implementation. However, this open window in the regulations is limited to a very limited framework, on roads with separated carriageways and without pedestrians and bicycles (motorways and motorways), up to only 60 km/h.

So primarily in heavy traffic. Like the Level 2 driving aids fitted to many cars today, the on-board system takes control of longitudinal (accelerator and brake) and lateral (steering) actions, but with Level 3 there’s no longer any need to keep your hands on the wheel. However, the driver must remain alert, ready to take control at any time. This is not about giving yourself a nap – only possible from level 4. A built-in camera monitors the driver, and the car will call him to order in case of too much laxity.

On the other hand, it will be possible to watch a movie or delve into emails on your smartphone in traffic jams. From next year, European regulations are expected to evolve with a level 3 raised to 130 km/h, allowing true autonomous driving on the highway, but we don’t know when France plans to approve it.

A legal challenge

One of the big questions regarding the autonomous driving phases is liability in the event of an accident. Charlotte Le Roux, solicitor at Hogan Lovells, explains the changes in the rules: “The new article L123-1 of the Highway Code exempts drivers from any criminal liability when they are not in control of the vehicle at the time of the offense (i.e. when driving is delegated to the automatic driving system). During these periods when the automatic driving system is in control of the vehicle in accordance with its conditions of use, the vehicle manufacturer or its representative bears criminal liability for any offense of involuntary damage to the person’s life or integrity in the event of a fault. Even so, responsibility could revert to the driver in case of behavior that lacks seriousness in a phase of autonomous driving.

Rare compatible models

Today, only Mercedes is able to offer models approved in Europe for level 3 autonomous driving, which requires an additional technological arsenal. Its S-Class and EQS equipped with the Drive Pilot system are in operation in Germany on more than 13,000 km of motorways. In France, it is possible to choose the appropriate option (around €5,000 to €7,000), but it will be necessary to wait until 2023 to exploit the potential. Indeed, this implies an intense preparation for high-resolution and 3D digitization of the mapping of the affected sectors to ensure a more efficient and responsive driving system.

The extra elements of Drive Pilot consist of a more efficient GPS antenna, a lidar (laser radar), sound sensors in the fenders (the rolling noise of the tires helps to provide information about the level of grip) and a rear camera to see emergency vehicles arrive. Numerous sensors and crucial elements for steering, braking and power supply are also provided with physical and functional redundancy.

Other manufacturers should offer their solution in the future, sometimes with other technologies. On Tesla’s side, no lidar or long-range radar: it’s the cameras that do everything. The brand currently only offers classic semi-autonomous driving assistance in France with its famous autopilot system, with the option of “fully autonomous driving”, billed at €7,500. Today it only adds an anecdotal red-light stop feature on the road, but it should be a worthwhile investment in anticipation of enabling its future autonomous features: it now costs $15,000 for the US, where the system is being tested in a much more advanced beta phase, with a monthly subscription of $199. If the presence of the hands on the steering wheel is required today, there is no doubt that as soon as the manufacturer finds it possible, it will go ahead.

Honda, for its part, last year launched its own system in Japan, Sensing Elite, homologated on its top-of-the-line Legend sedan. Blue lights outside the car indicate to other drivers the phases of autonomous operation. A wise initiative, because an improvised response from an autonomous driving system is always possible and can surprise traditional drivers.

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