Mobile Geeks

Mercedes Benz S-Class Learns to Drive Itself – Intelligent Drive World Tour

The aim of the Intelligent World Drive on five continents was to gain worldwide insight into real traffic conditions so that future, more automated driving systems can be adapted to country-specific traffic and user habits.The Final Leg took place at CES in Las Vegas, in fact, Mr. Mobile & I were the last people to do the drive before the S-Class was packed up and shipped home to Germany.

As much as I love experiencing new forms of technology, it’s always more fun with a friend. It took a few conversations to convince Mr. Mobile, that he should expand his horizons beyond Electric Vehicles. The nerdiest part and for me, the most interesting has little to do with how the car is powered, but it’s how the car learns to drive itself.  Michael’s video is as always fantastic and is below, above, you’ll find a fireside chat of sorts diving into our experience learning how a self-driving car sees the world and becomes a better driver is above.

The final leg of the journey was the one we took part in, in LA/Las Vegas the team focused on driving assessments in dense urban areas and highways. There was a high focus on the recognition of school buses, lane marking and speed limit signs. The DIGITAL LIGHT system was also tested and was a light show not to be missed.

In order to help their cars learn to drive better, a standard 2017 S-Class was outfitted with extra equipment to record the driver, the front, rear and side cameras, the radar and the data from the sensors. One Minute of data collection gathers 12GB of Data. What was most astonishing was that the equipment needed to record the drive was so much more elaborate than computer needed to drive the car.

Data logger. No need to run the heat when you’re logging 6GB of data in 30sec!

Compared to this, which is all that’s needed for the car to drive itself:

What Does it mean when a car learns to drive?

The way that the data was presented during the autonomous drive was unique compared to what I had seen before. A separate monitor was mounted in the car to show off what the car was “seeing”. The radar, camera, and sensors could determine the types of objects as well as the direction they were moving in.

Five locations were chosen for the world tour which kicked off in Germany. Australia & South Africa were two of the right-hand drive destinations visited with very different lane markings and road rules. China was an interesting stop where one of the key learnings was that the way that cars dealt with pedestrians was different than most other markets. People often cross the street on a diagonal, meaning they are not only walking across the street, but they are also crossing in the direction that they’re heading after they’ve crossed. Most drivers will simply move over in the lane to avoid the pedestrian, of course this would happen in all situations, but the way the car has to calculate how far to move over while doing the math on where the person crossing on a diagonal will be when they pass, all as a normal part of driving, is more complicated than swerving to avoid someone.

Raised reflectors as lane markings

Bott’s Dots are a very North American driving phenomenon and they presented a challenge for the automated and autonomous driving systems. These reflective dots are used to mark driving lanes rather than painted lines. What makes them a particular challenge is their reflective nature, there are often pieces of glass or metal found on highways from accidents or trash. Learning to tell a 2-inch piece of shiny plastic that’s meant to be there from one that’s not, presented an interesting challenge.

There is a plan to phase them out in California to harmonize the lane marking, there are over 20M Botts dots currently on California roads.

Did You Say, Your Headlights are Projectors?

You might ask your self why would you need to have projectors as headlights, as the S-Class shot 2 images on to a white fence I had to wonder. It turns out, there are a lot of great reasons why you should want to shine a light with precision. If you wanted to throw down a crosswalk to let a pedestrian know you see them and they are ok to cross the road, or if construction has removed the lanes your car can create some for you, or to illuminate a pedestrian but only from the neck down so you don’t blind them. Not only can you use the headlights to communicate with the outside world but they are intelligent enough to do so with consideration and intent.

Each headlight has one million small mirrors, pixels, that can create any type of light spectrum in a very large distance. The only downside, they’re not very effective during the day.

When the S-Class hits the street it won’t have quite as many futuristic features, the reminder to place your hands on the wheel will be turned on and of course, you’ll have way more trunk space! We’re excited for a future full of self-driving cars, but demos like these make us realize that just because it’s technically possible, cars still have a lot of learning to do before they’re going to have their own drivers license. It’s surprising just how similar the way a car learns to drive has in common with how we as humans learn to interact with the world.