On a warm and sunny day in California's Santa Monica – isn't it always? – I've been sat behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz EQS to undertake a journey that, until now, hasn't been legally possible here before in any of the current best electric cars. Utilising the marque's Drive Pilot Level 3 system, conditional automation is now possible – meaning that whilst driving down a highway the car takes full control, no hands-on-the-wheel intervention required.
When Drive Pilot Level 3 is permitted to be activated the car not only takes control but is also liable. That's how completely assured the system is by Mercedes. You could even watch a YouTube video on the car's hyperscreen main console whilst sat in traffic. This marks a major step forward in automation and is something that even Tesla can't rival, as while that brand's Autopilot system has been granted a level 2 classification (in the SAE's 1-to-5-level system), that's where it has remained for a number of years.
Mercedes-Benz is the first and only car maker to be granted level 3 for its EQS and S Class vehicles – thus far in the states of California and Nevada, plus in the brand's native Germany, with further expansion inevitable – and it's not some kind of make-believe, as I discovered whilst testing Drive Pilot Level 3 in the stop-start traffic that was busying California's i10 highway (again, isn't it always?).
I've been writing about cars in various capacities for 12-plus years now, so have observed the change from traditional fuels to electronic vehicles (EVs) and the significant progress of automated driving systems during this time. I've experienced numerous demonstrations under controlled conditions, so to experience level 3 automation on real roads was a revelation. Although there are some caveats, as I'll get into below.
As stated: Drive Pilot Level 3 is a 'conditional automation' system so requires certain conditions to be present in order to be activated. It will only function on good-condition highways (in the relevant approved areas) during daylight hours, in good weather, where another vehicle is present in front (at up to 100 metres) and in fluctuating traffic flows of up to 40mph.
Sounds like a checklist of oh-so-many variables, but it's actually really simple: the majority of the time while in concertina traffic a simple press of the steering-wheel-positioned buttons (mirrored left and right) activated Drive Pilot and I was then free to sit back, relax and let the car take over. I couldn't take my eyes off the road entirely, however, as the on-board safety cameras are always observing to ensure that I, as the driver, was still in a responsible position.
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The actual experience of Drive Pilot Level 3 automation is thorough: the car will brake to stoppage as required, then start and accelerate to within a safe distance of the vehicle in front, with full steering control. I found the system to be more 'aware' and considered in its braking and stoppage than I've found with the cruise control system of the current EQS setup – a car I know well, having driven it 300 miles to and from Glastonbury Festival this summer – which made me feel more relaxed with the car, well, driving me rather than the other way around.
Outside of the level 3 automation there are some great level 2 features, too, such as automatic lane changing. When driving faster than 40mph (and therefore Drive Pilot Level 3 is unavailable – Mercedes is working on the next step of getting it approved in conditions up to 80mph though) this permits the car to overtake or move into available slower lanes as necessary. I found this really effective and not solely reactive to immediate condition changes, the system monitors surroundings to deliver a predictive and really fluid on-the-road experience.
Some will argue that Tesla drivers have experienced much of this functionality for many years, of course, but the key difference as I've outlined up top is that only Mercedes is approved (in the stipulated territories) to level 3 and that, when Drive Pilot Level 3 is activated, provides an asured and legal guarantee of its full conditional automation.
Another significant point of interest, as you can see from my external shots of the EQS in its Drive Pilot livery, is the addition of distinct turquoise lighting to represent when automation is active. Whilst this is not yet road legal – the car I drove did not feature these additions – it's an intended industry-wide move to offer a visual identifier to the benefit of other road users and pedestrains. So in the not-too-far future you could be seeing more than just red, yellow and white lights across many vehicles – not only Mercedes-Benz.
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So why does all this really matter? For me, I see it as an integral stepping stone towards level 4, which is the point at which 'high automation' takes precedent (level 5 being 'full automation'). But beyond that it's the sheer ease and comfort provided: I didn't need to worry about stop-start braking and bother whilst in traffic, which is a major bugbear when driving in many major cities (especially Los Angeles and Las Vegas, so this Mercedes-Benz stage two rollout is savvily targeted).
Speaking with Mercedes-Benz's Chief Technical Officer, Markus Shaefer, he commented that this accomplishment "was not a race for us [Mercedes-Benz]", and that "someone has to be first to land on the moon. Taking your eyes off the road when the car is moving – that’s pretty amazing. Of course this is just the start; by end of next year  we want to be at higher speeds.” So there's plenty more to come in this progression towards even more automation for drivers' benefits, comfort and, ultimately time-savings.
That's where I see this all heading: it's the time-saving that, when higher-level automation is upon us in the future, will mean you could, for example, completely disengage, perhaps get on with some work on your laptop, or have a nap, or whatever else would be beneficial to you whilst 'driving'. Seeing as Drive Pilot Level 3 will cost $2,500 annually for those customers who elect it in their EQS or E Class vehicles, future advancements could pay for themselves in the time gained back. After all, as the saying goes: time is money...