Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Don't Let Your S Class Make You an S-hole

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 07, 2014

I thought the Mercedes S Class was the most advanced car on the road, thanks in large part to its safety system portfolio and multiple expert reviews. Dan Carney has a different opinion on this subject.

Consumers are definitely getting mixed messages from the insurance industry and the Intelligent Transportation Systems community (ITS). The ITS folks are telling us that human beings are responsible for 90% of accidents. The insurance industry – judging from Nationwide’s latest auto insurance TV ads in the U.S. – is telling us that “the safest feature in the car is you.” ( - Nationwide Insurance ad.)

The ITS community wants to automate the driving task – as much as possible – with intelligent highways that will force the driver to relinquish control of the car. But until that day arrives, we are all going to have to do a whole lot of our own driving – so the Nationwide message, though contradictory, is a powerful one.

The Nationwide message is made even more powerful in the context of the limitations of current semi-automated driving systems such as automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. This was brought home to me today as I sat in a local Starbucks with autowriter (and Euroswift racer) Dan Carney who took umbrage with my suggestion that he should look at the Mercedes S Class as the safest car on the road.

Dan’s own experience with the S Class highlighted for him the enduring role played by the driver. In his experience driving the S Class he identified at least three scenarios where driver intervention will deliver a superior and safer driving experience:

Scenario 1 – Moving smoothly in traffic, Dan says he could see an approaching wave of stop lights in the cars up ahead. Unfortunately, the S Class is not equipped to see that same wave and, as a result, the automatic emergency brake did not kick in until the system perceived a stopped vehicle immediate in front of the car.

Instead of a smooth, gliding stop managed by a driver anticipating the slowdown, each incident produced a more urgent, near-tire-screeching braking experience. The automated system was unable to apprehend the braking of the cars up ahead. (This could conceivably be remedied by vehicle-to-vehicle communication – at some future date.)

Scenario 2 – Using adaptive cruise control to maintain a steady following distance worked well for Dan, until he passed highway entrance ramps. The car showed no awareness of these ramps and definitely did not seek any means to accommodate merging vehicles. Dan was left to gesture wordlessly to the angry but unsuccessful mergers: “It’s not me. It’s my car.” That’s right, at that point your car has turned you into an @#$hole. NOTE: Dan said he intervened to allow the mergers in.

Scenario 3 – Dan was stopped in a line of cars, but could see cars ahead beginning to move and shift out of the stopped lane. The adaptive cruise control, however, was not able to anticipate this activity until the car immediately in front finally moved. This meant that the car wanted to charge forward at the very same moment that opportunists to the right and left wanted to surge into the now-open space – a recipe for an accident. (Again, vehicle-to-vehicle communications will help in the future.)

Thanks for sharing, Dan.

So, it looks like Nationwide is right. For now, you, the driver, are still the safest thing in the car. Automated systems are helpful, but even the most advanced systems have not yet found a way to replace the advantages of the old-fashioned analog on-board visual system – the human being.

The Mercedes requires the driver’s hands to be on the wheel for the automated systems to function. If the driver has his or her hands on the wheel, this might prevent the very scenarios as described from unfolding without driver intervention. But, on a lighter note, a Jalopnik report notes a means to defeat this element of the automated safety package: - This Simple Hack Lets Your Mercedes Become Semi-Autonomous. This is definitely in the category of an off-label use of the safety systems.

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