California certified as next US state to allow Mercedes’ Level 3 autonomous DRIVE PILOT

Califooooorniaaaaaa here we coooommmmeeeee (autonomously). Mercedes-Benz has just announced that its SAE Level 3 autonomous driver assist system, DRIVE PILOT, has been certified to operate in the entire state of California, beginning with a couple of familiar models.

Mercedes-Benz’s DRIVE PILOT first debuted on the speedy roads in Germany in May of 2022, but we at Electrek have had the chance to experience it (to some level) in the US with adult supervision. The automaker’s “DISTRONIC Active Distance Assist” builds upon the long-established Level 2 autonomy MB has been delivering for years and takes it to another echelon.

The driver assistance feature ensures the EV maintains a preselected distance from the vehicle in front of it while also maintaining other standard operations like lane keeping and active steering.

However, since DISTRONIC still requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel, it remains classified as SAE Level 2. That is not the case for DRIVE PILOT. This Level 3 technology still uses the existing surround sensors of the Mercedes’ Driving Assistance Package in an EQS, for example, but also utilizes additional sensors, including LiDAR and a camera in the rear window.

DRIVE PILOT even uses microphones to detect approaching emergency vehicles along with a road wetness sensor in the wheel well. Throw in redundant steering, braking actuators, and an onboard electrical system, and Mercedes EVs equipped with DRIVE PILOT are loaded with fail-safes in case one system struggles.

That’s why Mercedes-Benz is one of the few automakers to achieve Level 3 autonomous driving certification from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and a reason why the most populous territory in the US is allowing it to operate.

California joins Nevada in Level 3 autonomous driving

The German automaker shared details of its latest US certification this afternoon, relaying that California state authorities have approved the technology to operate under conditional circumstances.

The Golden State now joins Nevada as the second in the US to allow DRIVE PILOT, while Mercedes-Benz simultaneously earns the crown as the first automaker in both states approved for Level 3 autonomous driving on public roads in a standard-production.

Unlike the Level 2 ADAS systems mentioned above, like Tesla’s Autopilot and Ford’s BlueCruise that’s currently expanding in the US, Mercedes’ DRIVE PILOT enables the driver to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road – when engaged, the vehicle is liable for anything that happens. Markus Schäfer, member of the board of management of Mercedes‑Benz Group AG and chief technology officer responsible for development and procurement, elaborated:

Mercedes-Benz DRIVE PILOT is the world’s only SAE Level 3 system with internationally valid type approval. It builds on a very robust foundation, setting new industry standards. DRIVE PILOT uses a highly sophisticated vehicle architecture based on redundancy with a multitude of sensors enabling comfortable and safe conditionally automated driving. The certification by the authorities in California and in Nevada once again confirms that redundancy is the safe and thus the right approach.

While Mercedes-Benz’s final iteration of DRIVE PILOT is striving toward Level 3 autonomous driving at speeds of up to 80 mph, it’s not quite there yet. Like Nevada, California will allow Mercedes EV drivers to engage DRIVE PILOT on certain freeway sections with high traffic density – the driver assistance system can then take over speeds up to 40 mph.

From there, DRIVE PILOT will control the vehicle’s speed, distance, and lane guidance, monitoring any and all traffic signs and other events occurring on the route while reacting to unexpected traffic situations independently through “evasive maneuvers within the lane” or by braking. Remember all that talk about extra safety and fail-safes? Mercedes-Benz explains further:

If the driver fails to take back control even after increasingly urgent prompting and expiration of the takeover time (e.g., due to a severe health problem), the system brakes the vehicle to a standstill in a controlled manner while engaging the hazard warning lights. Once the vehicle has come to a standstill, the Mercedes‑Benz emergency call system is activated and the doors are unlocked to ensure the vehicle is accessible for first responders.

We’re seeing similar technology being implemented in other upcoming EVs, like Volvo’s EX90, which utilizes LiDAR. According to Mercedes, DRIVE PILOT will come equipped on DRIVE PILOT in 2024 model year EQS sedans in the US, with the first deliveries expected in late 2023. As you may have guessed, MB intends to expand the availability of DRIVE PILOT to additional markets in the future.

What do you think? Do you trust Mercedes-Benz’s Level 3 autonomous driving? Is it a selling point for you to buy one of its EVs?