We've taken a ride in the upgraded S-Class, which will use map data to paint a better picture of its surroundings and offer more advanced driverless control
29 March 2017

The facelifted Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury saloon is to make its first appearance at the Shanghai motor show, and will feature an extended range of driver assistance systems, including advanced autonomous capabilities. It arrives in the third quarter of 2017.

The systems include a newly developed Active Distance function that provides fully autonomous acceleration and braking over any given journey programmed into its sat-nav, in conjunction with an updated Active Speed Limit Assist system.

A revised Distronic cruise control system, which Mercedes says will eventually filter down into all of its future models, offers a new autonomous driving function that promises improved safety as well as a set-and-forget speed limit function which strictly adheres to both posted and temporary speed limits, whether in an urban environment, on country roads or out on the motorway. Crucially, it is able to autonomously adjust the speed according to the route, braking for corners, decelerating when approaching motorway exits and stopping when the driver indicates to turn across the path of oncoming traffic.

Supporting the Distronic system is a new series of graphics, both within the instrument cluster and within the optional head up display unit.

The new optional driver assistance system, which is accessed via buttons on a newly designed multi-function steering wheel rather than Mercedes-Benz’s traditional cruise control stalk, relies on an upgraded stereo camera mounted within the windscreen, with the two lenses moved further apart for improved definition, to scan road signs. It also uses an improved long-range radar system capable of operating at up to 250 metres in front of the car to support the driver and autonomously stop the S-Class if it detects an obstacle.

It's also able to provide anticipatory adjustments in speed on the basis of digital mapping data in the upgraded Comand Online 5.5 sat-nav and infotainment system. The mapping data, provided by the Here joint venture, which is owned by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, is described by Michael Hafner, the head of automated driving and active safety at Mercedes-Benz, as being “significantly more intelligent” than that of previous systems. 

In a development touted as a key step on the way to full autonomous driving, the Active Distance function uses the data provided by the digital mapping data to reduce speeds in bends, at roundabouts, junctions and tollbooths, stopping the car when necessary and then autonomously speeding up again when both the road conditions and speed limit allows.

The character of the autonomous functions can be altered in three modes via the S-Class’s Dynamic Select system:  Eco provides a conservative driving style for maximum fuel savings, Comfort aims for more serene progress and Sport is programmed to maximum accelerative potential while providing later and more severe braking. Cornering speeds are also varied between the three modes.

Mercedes-Benz’s latest autonomous cruise control function also controls the following distance to other vehicles within a speed range between 0 and 131mph. To maximise fuel economy in Eco mode, it also engages the coasting function during periods of trailing throttle, taking into account the speed limit and autonomously braking to ensure you remain within it.

Coupled with a revised Active Steering Assist function, the Active Distance function offered on the facelifted S-Class also provides autonomous steering for periods of up to 30sec. Hafner says the software controlling the autonomous steering function has been extensively reworked, providing it with greater accuracy and improved fluidity.

Further driver assistant system set to be adopted by the facelifted S-Class include the Active Lane Change Assist, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Active Brake Assist and remote Parking Assist functions already offered on the E-class.

First ride in the revised S-Class

As we set off in the facelifted S-Class with all its various driving assistant systems switched on for the first time, the overriding impression is just how far Mercedes has come to delivering on the promise of equipping its future models with fully autonomous driving capability.

While Mercedes is yet to provide its upper luxury saloon with a full-time autonomous steering function due to such a system's illegality on European roads, the combination of its new Active Distance Assist and Active Speed Limit Assist functions nevertheless represent a significant step toward endowing the S-Class with the driverless mobile lounge-like qualities touted by recent future-focused concepts such as the F015 Luxury In Motion.  

With a route programmed into its updated Command Online navigation system, the updated S-Class gets under way with a nudge of the throttle from the driver. From there, it autonomously accelerates and brakes its way out of Mercedes' technical centre on the outskirts of Stuttgart.

Using information gathered by its newly engineered stereo camera, long-distance radar and digital mapping data from the navigation system, we spend almost an hour heading along a section of a six-lane autobahn, winding country roads and urban streets. Impressively, the only action required by the driver is an occasional tweak on the new multi-function steering wheel.

With the new Mercedes able to accelerate and brake on its own, stress on its driver is clearly reduced. As a further advantage, the car's speed never rises above the legal limit.  

What really impresses is the predictive element Mercedes has engineered into its latest Distronic system. As we exit an autobahn, the S-Class autonomously applies braking force within the exit lane, recognising the corner ahead and adjusting our speed accordingly. When we reach the corner, sufficient speed has been wiped off to enable the driver to confidently turn in before the car accelerates itself back up to the 70km/h limit without the driver’s foot coming anywhere near the throttle.

In another example of the predictive capability, the new Distronic system applies braking force while on the entry to towns, ensuring the speed of the car is perfectly matched to the limit right at the appearance of the town sign.

What it also does well is easily identify temporary speed limits in construction zones, even on signs that are partly obscured.        

But while representing a big advance on the former Distronic system, the Active Distance Assist and Active Speed limit Assist systems are not quite perfect. The sign scanning software cannot yet differentiate between varying speed limits where the sign denotes a certain time of day for one limit and then a second time of day for another limit. “We’re working on it”, says Hafner. “But the complexities are enormous and these things simply take time.”  

We also noticed that the car failed to come off the throttle and adjust speed when we passed a temporary sign warning of an oil spillage.

Other changes to the S-Class

Along with its extensive range of new tech, there will be some visual tweaks to the updated S-Class. The main changes will be new front and rear bumpers, and slight adjustments to the design of the tail-lights. The LED headlight cluster designs will also be adjusted.

Engines from the current S-Class are likely to be carried over in their entirety, but may have minor improvements to their fuel economy and CO2 emissions figures. Meanwhile, a new 48V mild hybrid system is due to be rolled out as part of a wider plan to add more electrically assisted models.

The Mercedes-AMG S 63 will also be facelifted. Click here for the latest on that car

Additional reporting by Mike Duff and Darren Moss

2018 Mercedes-AMG S 63 Coupé facelift spotted

Our Verdict

Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the self-proclaimed ‘best car in the world’, is back. Or is it?

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Comments
8

16 March 2017
Autonomous technology is really only designed for those who want to own a car but dislike driving. Given the huge cost of the car, insurance, fuel, tax and maintenance, they'd probably be happier and better off by taking a taxi.

17 March 2017
How is MB proposing to educate people who buy their cars, so that they can safely operate all these features? Handing them a 700 page owner's manual isn't really good enough. I don't want to go back to the days of a box with just a steering wheel, gearshift and three pedals, but we are getting to the stage where we need a few hours on the automotive equivalent of a flight simulator. Reminds me of my dishwasher and washing machine, each of which have umpteen programs but we only ever use about two of them.

17 March 2017
Who is asking for this? What need is it meeting? Did the self-playing piano kill of the chore all pianists face of having to actually play their pianos?

17 March 2017
Hate to ask but how much is it going to cost to fix this stuff when it goes wrong?

17 March 2017
Is there an option to set the speed limit controlled speed to +10% or so? We all know that car speedos over estimate. So if you were on a motorway doing a car controlled 70 you'd have a queue behind you! But in town I want it set to 30 to not 35.

 

 

 

17 March 2017
Driving a car isn't rocket science, so I can only assume all these systems are for the hard of thinking and as far as Mercedes is concerned, they can't engineer their current range of 4Matic cars to turn on full lock without trying tear their tyres off (GLC, C, E Class), so how are we to believe their safety critical autonmous systems are going to work like they're supposed to? Sorry I'd rather play russian roulette than drive/be driven in an autonomous vehicle.

17 March 2017
Everyday we drive 1 metre away from other people with a closing speed of 120mph! With the appalling standards I'm now seeing on the roads I'd much rather that the other car has assist systems designed by qualified engineers than just the muppets driving. (Yes - It's not rocket science, but actually much harder as rocket science is based on the vacuum of space and classic gravity laws which is why a basic computer could get to the moon but a modern superchip and billions of lines of code is needed to handle a car on the A1!)

 

 

 

18 March 2017
Deputy, I take your point regarding the dangers of driving on the same roads as other less skilled or less attentive drivers but I'd rather take my chances with other humans. With regards to engineering, I fear you may have taken my analogy regarding rocket science out of context. My point was that driving itself isn't rocket science: Engineering autonomous systems for cars is incredibly complex however, as I pointed out, car manufacturers have repeatedly failed to engineer comparatively simple systems without incidence of catastrophic failure. Engineering mission critical systems for travel in space, one of the harshest environments known to mankind, is by orders of magnitude more complicated BUT 1) There's typically only one vehicle to be built, not thousands 2) The vehicle isn't expected to undertake repeated journeys, daily for years on end. 3) Maintenance of any multi-use aerospace vehicle is massively beyond that undertaken on your average car. Despite attentive servicing, at 3 years, my last Mercedes developed parking sensors that would fail every time it rained, an intermittant ESP fault and an auto box that would default to limp-home mode whenever the car sat for longer than a day. Consequently, I shudder at the prospect of millions of autonomous vehicles on our roads.

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