Seeing the future of high-tech, from behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz

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For an example of how close we are to the self-driving car, look no further than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

This $89,900 luxury sedan bristles with technology. Its cameras can read speed limit signs and set the cruise control accordingly. Tap the turn signal, and it will obligingly change lanes, all by itself. Its self-parking mode requires no human interaction at all — it works the brakes, the accelerator and the steering wheel, as the driver sits back.

"We could probably drive from here to Boston on the highway without you touching the steering wheel or the pedals," said Peter Wirth, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, Mass. "But you can't, because our car doesn't let you do it."

The S-Class will steer itself, but only to a point.

"After a certain number of seconds, a light will come on to say, `Put your hands back on the wheel.' That's partially government-imposed, and partially self-imposed," Wirth said.

"We want to make sure you understand that we may think the technology is 99 percent there, but because of that 1 percent, we're not going to launch that. We want to make sure it's 99.99."

What happens if the driver ignores the first warning? The car escalates, flashing more warnings and sounding more chimes. And if the driver still refuses? The car plays its trump card, flashing "Initiating Emergency Stop" in red letters on the dashboard.

The S-Class shows what's possible in other ways, too.

For instance, in an emergency stop, it's programmed to use every available foot of space before coming to a halt — that's so that the car behind it has a better chance of stopping without an impact. If the Mercedes detects that the car behind can't possibly stop, it applies its brakes fully so that the coming impact will be absorbed by the car, and not the occupants.

The car, like all Mercedes-Benzes, is equipped with the manufacturer's proprietary Pre-Safe system. The car can tell when a collision is imminent and take steps to prepare for it.

"We have a few crucial seconds before you potentially hit something. Why don't we use that time? Let's close the windows, let's close the sunroof, let's adjust the driver's seat perfectly to the airbag."

While watching the road, the S-Class also keeps an eye on its driver. A feature called Attention Assist, which is also standard on all cars, learns its driver's personal driving habits and signals when things are going wrong. There are no fewer than 75 indicators — "How often you adjust the radio. Erratic acceleration or braking. It might be time to take a break."

"One thing they [Mercedes-Benz engineers] are spectacular at is connecting the dots," learning when it's desirable to have two existing systems interact with one another, Wirth said. "It's all sensors that were already there. We have information; now, what do we do with this?"


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