I have no shame. I’ll knock down people’s doors until they give me the keys to what I want. Mostly it makes me look desperate and pathetic, but sometimes it works. This time around, the folks over at Mercedes-Benz of Austin gave in to my desperation and were kind enough to allow me to get my hands on their brand new 2017 Mercedes E300. If you’ve read some of my other articles about the M5 or the Porsche, you might be wondering why I would bother with anything other than an AMG.
It’s true—I love AMGs. But I wasn’t particularly interested in actually driving the E300. I was more interested in seeing how well the E300 could drive me around. The Mercedes E300, with the Premium 3 package comes with all kinds of tech like Distance Pilot Distronic, Steering Pilot, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Brake Assist, Surround View System among numerous other things. All these features are an attempt for Mercedes to a build a car that will likely become fully autonomous in the near future.
Now I know some of you reading this might start to gag when you see words like “autonomous” and “self-driving.” But driverless cars aren’t so bad when you’re stuck in rush hour traffic and don’t want to deal with that mess. This is why I am a proponent of self-driving kits for your own car because there are times when you’d want to focus on consuming a tasty Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzard instead of driving.
Chris Hernandez, dealer’s AMG brand ambassador (how do you get that gig?), showed me how to set up all the important stuff in the E-Class. I’m glad he was there to show me what to do, otherwise I’d be sitting in the car for hours trying to figure it all out. You do things by going through the various options laid out on the 12.3-inch center display—like selecting the speed at which you want the cabin to be filled with a specific fragrance. Mercedes has four different scents you can choose from to get rid of stinky passenger odor and replace it with say, Downtown Mood or Freeside Mood.
Ultimately, I went with the Freeside Mood scent, because as Mercedes says, it’s “an unobstrusive, but present citrus scent, very rounded, without any rough edges.” I certainly didn’t want anything disrupting a relaxing semi-autonomous driving experience so Freeside was the obvious choice here.
But just having Freeside wafting around the cabin wasn’t enough. I needed to enhance my relaxation by selecting the appropriate type of massage. I was stumped.
Should I go with the Classic Massage? Wave Massage? Mobilizing Massage? I had no idea what mobilizing massage was but it sounded like the best complement to the unobstrusive Freeside Mood, so mobilizing massage it was.
Perfume: check. Massage: check.
It was time to put the E300 to the test.
I was a bit concerned at first about letting computers drive me around but it didn’t take long before I was able to sit back, relax and let the E300 do its thing. I set the car’s speed to 45 mph and let it take over from there. Here’s what the car was able to do.
- Automatically adjust speed and maintain adequate distances between cars, including quickly slowing down as cars cut in front of me, because that’s what drivers like to do.
- Follow lane markers and turn with the roads as needed.
- Change lanes through a simple signal-stalk flip. This was so much fun that I kept switching lanes for no reason. I’m sure I got flipped off many times by other drivers because of this. During one of the lane changes, a car had moved into the spot that the E300 was planning on taking and canceled the lane change at the last minute. The E300 noticed the car before I did which I was pleasantly surprised by—and also relieved.
- Handle stop-and-go traffic. At a light when all the cars came to a stop so did the E300. It waited and started back up again when the other cars started moving without requiring any driver input.
It’s easy to get carried away with the thinking that the car can do everything itself, but of course it can’t. It’s far from being fully autonomous. I still had to take over frequently during the test drive, because there are still plenty of things it’s unable to do like read stoplights or drive when there are no lane markings.
But the E300 is fully aware of what it cannot do, and so periodically sends you reminders to give the steering wheel a nudge. Otherwise Drive Pilot will shut off leaving the fate of everyone in the car in your hands. So, no, you can’t take a nap when Drive Pilot is engaged. This is good for you and other humans.
Testing this out was way more fun than I thought it would be because Mercedes pretty much did the whole thing by itself. Backing into spots can sometimes be tricky but Parking Pilot makes it a breeze. The E300 can also exit out of a parking space for you.
Parallel parking was even more impressive to witness. We were in a parking garage at the time so I decided to test this out in between two perpendicularly parked cars. I watched nervously since the car came really close to the others to try to fit in. I was tempted to brake but held off. I prayed instead. Fortunately, my prayers were answered as the E300 flawlessly squeezed itself into the spot without hitting either car.
As I stood outside to admire the nice job the E300 did, I was wishing I could’ve used a smartphone app to get the car out of the parking spot because that would really have been a James Bond moment. Apparently, you can do that with a phone in Europe, but not in the US.
As great as all this tech is, the challenge with semi-autonomous cars is the human intervention aspect. It’s hard to keep switching back and forth between letting the car drive you and then taking over when needed. It’s better to be in a car that’s either fully autonomous or not autonomous at all. But I understand that these intermediate steps are necessary so that enough testing can take place before driverless cars are made available to the masses. Obviously, no one wants to get hurt in a self-driving car accident but I’m glad Mercedes is working on that as well.
The E300 has a ton of collision prevention features like evasive steering assist, emergency stop assist, congestion emergency braking—the list goes on and on. Mercedes has gone even one step further. If there’s a situation where there’s no way to avoid a crash, it has what’s called PRE-SAFE Impulse and PRE-SAFE Sound to protect the occupants as much as possible.
PRE-SAFE Impulse is where if Mercedes senses that someone is about to hit you on the side, the seat bolsters will automatically inflate pushing you towards the center of the car so that you don’t get hit as hard. If you think this is a cool feature, then PRE-SAFE Sound will blow your mind.
This is where moments before a car hits you, a “pink” noise will be automatically generated so that your ear canal closes off naturally to protect your hearing. Who knew that was even a thing? Which Mercedes genius engineer came up with this? This genius should also create the PRE-SAFE Bubble: a giant balloon instantly inflating around the car so that whatever is about to hit the car will bounce right off.
It’s good to know that Mercedes is spending so much time thinking about the autonomous car passengers as much as the autonomous technology itself. The company is one of the frontrunners in this mad race to deliver self-driving vehicles to the public, and if I had one of those, I’d want to be in the safest one.
If I’m sitting in a self-driving Mercedes blissfully day-dreaming and get hit, I want to make sure that I’m moved to the middle to not end up with a broken arm and still be able to hear afterwards. And hopefully I’d be wrapped in a bubble as well.
Photo credit: Aaron Arizpe, videographer for Mercedes Benz of Austin