David McCowen, 11 January 2016

Government to examine the “most advanced” car on sale.

The Federal Government will work with Mercedes-Benz to study the feasibility of self-driving cars on Australian roads.

The German manufacturer revealed plans to facilitate a 12-month trial of semi-autonomous cars in Australia, starting later in 2016, at the launch of its new E-Class sedan in Detroit on Monday.

Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy said the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development will examine a state-of-the-art vehicle on local roads for 12 months.

“A government department is going to use our vehicle to highlight the new safety technology. It’s pretty special,” he said.

“We will be able to demonstrate it in the real world.”

Full details surrounding the trial will be revealed at the Australian Grand Prix in March. McCarthy could not say which vehicle is involved, but it is believed to be the new E-Class sedan which arrives locally in June.

Described by Mercedes as the “most advanced” car on sale, the E-Class is already part of a study in the US that saw it become the first production vehicle to undertake self-driving tests on Nevada roads without any physical modifications. Rival machines rely on additional sensors to help make sense of their surroundings.

Speaking with Drive.com.au in Detroit, Mercedes-Benz head of research and development, professor Thomas Weber, said the only difference between a production E-Class and the fully autonomous vehicle on trial in Las Vegas was the removal of software requiring the driver to touch the steering wheel once in a while.

“It’s only to give back a signal to say yes, I am driving still,” Weber said.

“Otherwise it’s completely a production car. It’s only a little change, a deactivation of a safety control rule.”

The degree of autonomy offered by the E-Class varies according to local requirements around the world. US customers will be able to drive for a minute or more without touching the steering wheel. Even then, the car only requires a gentle pat to reassure it that the driver is awake.

But Australian cars will be limited to just over 10 seconds of autonomous driving as local authorities are not completely comfortable with the notion of a self-driving car. Rival machines such as Tesla’s Model S are already able to drive for far longer without driver intervention, but Mr McCarthy said Mercedes-Benz preferred to work closely with transport authorities and make them fully aware of each model’s capabilities.

Set to go on sale locally for around $80,000, the new E-Class is capable of braking to avoid collisions, steering around hazardous objects and changing lanes without drivers touching the steering wheel.

It can also park itself without anyone sitting inside the car. But that feature may not be part of the vehicle’s attributes from launch, as local authorities have frowned on the concept of cars moving without having a driver on-board to direct the vehicle, an issue BMW uncovered ahead of the launch of its self-parking 7-Series sedan. While the new Mercedes is capable of driving itself for hours on end, Mercedes agreed to limit the car’s capabilities to a much shorter period of time – at least for now.

“[The government] has approved the car and they know it does it for 12 seconds… the government has accepted that period of time,” McCarthy said.

“It doesn’t make the car less safe. [But] it has the potential to take away some of its ability to be safer.

“You can’t do something that the regulations don’t allow and expect them to agree. The government is being very cooperative.”

Weber and McCarthy both said it may be possible to remove the 12 second restriction on local cars with a software update in the future, though Mercedes has not locked in plans to do so.

Mercedes-Benz chairman Dieter Zetsche said his company was taking a cautious approach the progression of self driving cars.

“We can do much better than we are allowed to do, but I think this is ok, this has to be a process,” he said.

“You do not want governments to say ‘do what you want’, we have to learn what is doable and reasonable at that time, and then work together with government to define these limitations.

“The potential of this car goes well beyond what is allowed at this time.”

David McCowen travelled to Detroit as a guest of Mercedes-Benz.

Extracted in full from Drive.