In December 2021, Mercedes-Benz became the first OEM to meet the legal requirements for international Level 3 autonomous driving capabilities. Their Level 3 system, called Drive Pilot, is currently only offered in Germany but the brand now has plans to get the system certified right here in the U.S. of A.

We aren’t legally allowed to drive this system yet but we recently were able to see Drive Pilot in action as Mercedes invited us to their Tech & Innovation Day out in California.

At this point, almost all manufacturers have developed Level 2 autonomous systems which are legally just advanced driver assistance. You still have to be paying attention with your eyes on the road.  

Moving to Level 3 becomes “conditional autonomy”. Basically, the car can drive itself in certain situations but a driver must be available to take back control if the system can no longer operate. So while the system is being used, the driver doesn’t have to be paying attention to the road. You can watch a movie, send some emails, or use your phone!

We rode in a modified S-Class, one that was equipped with radars, cameras, and LiDAR. There's a sensor just to monitor the road’s moisture, rear cameras to detect emergency vehicle lights, and LiDAR which uses light pulses to monitor objects in the surrounding area. The trunk was full of equipment that was processing the up to 34 gigabytes worth of driving data every minute.

At this point in time, Drive Pilot can only function under very specific conditions. Those conditions are certain road types, weather, vehicle speed, if the car can detect lane markings, a lack of construction zones, and more. Our test site was some very convenient LA traffic. Convenient for us because it is really the only use case for Drive Pilot at the moment. An already mapped highway, speeds under 40 miles-per-hour, and perfectly clear weather made it easy for the S-Class to use the Level 3 system.

So how exactly does it work? Once the vehicle recognizes Level 3 conditions are met, it will give you an indication on the dash cluster. All you do is tap a button on the steering wheel, the lights will turn green, and you’re good to go! The car is quite literally driving itself.

We were even able to surf while the car was moving.

When the car wants you to take back control, it will prompt you with a message on the dash and infotainment along with red lights on the steering wheel. Your seatbelt will tighten, a chime will play, and you’ll have 10 seconds to respond to the request. If you don’t, the car will come to a safe stop and call emergency services.

Overall, Drive Pilot was incredibly impressive. Compared to the Level 2 systems we’ve experienced, this was much more confident in its presence on the road. Mercedes was pretty adamant about the trust needed between the driver and the car and by the end of our 30 minute drive, I felt very comfortable with the system’s abilities.

Mercedes has to petition each U.S. state individually for Level 3 certification so the first states it plans to start with are California and Nevada. They hope to get approval by the end of 2022.

While Drive Pilot was incredible to see in person, it shows just how far we have to go when it comes to full autonomy. So rest assured, we are still decades away from cars being able to truly drive themselves.

We’ll have more on all things autonomous, coming up on MotorWeek!