The world's smartest car (and what it says about the future of urban driving)

Wed, 2016-01-13 06:00 -- Doug Peeples


Once you read about the autonomous driving innovations just released by Mercedes, you'll realize that we're closer than ever to a revolution in transportation.

This creates both a dilemma and an opportunity for city leaders. Should cities continue to plan for a transportation future that looks much like the past? Or should they begin adapting to a world that will include autonomous driving?

Or should they even look for ways to benefit from the transition? One city in the Middle East is setting aside an entire section that will permit only autonomous cars. Other cities are negotiating with car makers to experiment with self-driving cars in restricted areas such as campuses and office parks.

Still others are trying to position themselves as great places to locate a new-age car company. (In fact, the entire state of Nevada has become a hotbed for electric vehicles and batteries.) Those next-generation companies are looking for more than just cheap real estate and tax breaks. They also want to locate where the local governments will collaborate to allow them to test their vehicles in the real world and at scale.

This isn't the first time cities have faced a transportation transformation. In the second half of the 19th century, some American cities positioned themselves to connect with the spreading railroad network. Others were content to get by with horse and buggy. Likewise, in the middle of the 20th century, some cities embraced interstate freeways, while others dilly-dallied.

Cities will be facing similar choices in this century. And possibly even sooner than we expected. -- Jesse Berst


Whether you like the idea of cars that can drive themselves or not, it's likely you'll begin to see them within the next few years, many car makers say. As cities increasingly focus their attention on smarter ways to manage the traffic congestion and other vehicle-related issues brought about by growing populations, car manufacturers are adding technologies to reduce collisions and congestion -- and to relieve drivers of some of the burdens and distractions they continually face on the road.

Mercedes-Benz, a division of Council Lead Partner Daimler, has just released the latest generation of its E-Class which includes an optional driver assistance package the company says makes it the smartest car in its class.

"The E-Class is the core of the Mercedes-Benz brand and in the past has repeatedly redefined the standards in the business class segment," said Dr. Thomas Weber, a member of Daimler's Board of Management responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. "The new E-Class takes another step towards fully autonomous driving."

What makes the E-Class so smart?
Several new technology features combine to take much of the burden and distraction away from drivers. As described in Just Auto, some of them are:

  • Active Lane-change Assistant: Based on information received from radar and cameras, the feature steers the car from one lane to another as directed by the driver if the lane is unoccupied.
  • Distance Pilot Distronic: On highways and country roads the car automatically paces itself to stay the proper distance away from cars in front of it.
  • Active Lane Keeping Assist: This feature can prevent the driver from changing lanes if there is a danger of collision with oncoming or overtaking vehicles.
  • Active Blind Spot Assist: The E-Class will provide an alert while the car is moving at low speeds if there is danger of a lateral collision.

The new Mercedes-Benz also includes pedestrian avoidance features, remote parking capability and a mobile phone-supported car-to-car communications system that warns drivers of traffic hazards before they are able to see them. An optional virtual instrument display in the driver's field of view also is available.

Driverless cars and smart cities
Many readers are aware of and some may be driving the Mercedes-Benz Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, the tiny EV designed specifically for city driving. Beyond the new E-Class, the company is working on a fully autonomous car -- and one of the company's commitments is that the car be a good citizen.

Other car companies also are working with cities on a variety of projects. Ford's research center for driverless cars in Palo Alto has been among the technology companies that provided the city with one of the first traffic management systems with a focus on connected vehicles. Volkswagen and its headquarters city Wolfsburg in Germany have developed a successful smart city initiative which started as a way to provide WiFi for the city and VW's connected cars.

The point is while not every city happens to have a major car company, many cities may have opportunities to collaborate to their mutual benefit.

Related articles…
Daimler, BMW and Audi: How they're moving us closer to self-driving cars
Electric cars in the real world: Daimler study reveals some surprises
Daimler unveils first self-driving truck approved for U.S. highway testing

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.