I remember a road safety campaign that claimed there are no such things as accidents, only collision decisions. With autonomous driving in our future, what would they be called then?
The new E 300 from Mercedes Benz is available with “Drive Pilot,” touted by its maker as a decisive step toward autonomous driving.
For someone like me, who happens to enjoy being in control of a motor vehicle, let’s just say the state of this art does not make me feel particularly enamoured.
The concept of autonomous vehicles — those that are controlled by computers rather than their error-prone human occupants — is nothing new.
What is notable is how swiftly manufacturers are bringing this technology to the mass market, but we’re not there yet. Not even in a Tesla.
Tesla is the best-known purveyor of vehicles with autonomous capabilities, and indeed, the first fatality related to autonomous driving occurred in May 2016 when the vehicle’s sensors failed to recognize a white semi-trailer crossing the highway on which the Tesla was travelling. The car went full speed under the trailer and had its roof ripped off in the process, killing the Tesla’s lone occupant.
While Tesla, when pressed, claims that its “Autopilot” technology does not actually make the car autonomous, it doesn’t take much research on the web to see that drivers are using it as such.
That brings us to this new Drive Pilot-equipped E-Class: there I was, hurtling down the highway, my wife and children with me, my hands off the wheel.
And I couldn’t help but feel like we were guinea pigs in a very risky experiment. My hands hovered at the ready, my attention focused squarely on monitoring the position of the car in its lane and whether it appeared to be in the right place all the time.
The short answer? Not even close.
When the car is in control, a small green steering wheel icon appears at the bottom of the instrument panel — one that contains no gauges at all, but is rather one of two 12.3-inch widescreen displays that are user-configurable. When conditions aren’t suitable for the car to be driving itself, the green icon disappears. There’s no warning or chime, just the absence of that little green wheel icon.
Even when the green wheel was illuminated, the car didn’t always stay in the centre of the lane, sometimes driving arrow-straight when the road itself was curving, so the front-left passenger had better be attentive.
Drive Pilot is part of the $3,000 Intelligent Drive package that is optional on E-Class sedans. While our tester was a four-cylinder E 300, a visit to Mercedes-benz.ca at the time of this writing shows that the package is only available on the V-6-equipped E 400.
Even some of the more expected technology features weren’t in top form: during a highway drive on a dry, sunny day, the cruise control disengaged, citing a dirty radar sensor. There was no such dirt buildup, yet the cruise control was rendered useless. Twenty minutes later, the dirty sensor mysteriously fixed itself and business carried on as usual.
The E didn’t strike a premium chord with me during its stay. Part of the blame can be assigned to the engine: displacing but 2.0 litres and generating 241 horsepower, this turbocharged four-banger is short on refinement. The transmission has no fewer than nine forward speeds, but fell short due to harsh 2-1 downshifts when slowing to a stop. Suspension clunks over sharp bumps struck me as very inappropriate for the sandbox in which the E-Class plays.
It’s also cold and detached inside. I don’t normally take issue with Mercedes’ typical Teutonic approach to businesslike interiors (read: black and white with the odd silver accent), but this one made no attempt to establish a connection with its occupants. It’s a glaring omission in a market segment that relies on some level of emotion to seal the sales deal.
About the most convincing evidence of what is lacking in the E 300 occurred last October when I was attending AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year competition. I stepped into a similarly priced Genesis G90 immediately after my first drive in an E 300. My first impression of the elevated Hyundai? Now this is what a premium sedan should feel like.
On the upside, the engine and tranny combo provided more spirited acceleration than expected, yet turned out to be quite frugal at the pump. Thank the turbo-four’s flat and robust torque curve for that. The car is beautiful inside and out, with a strong family resemblance to the C- and S-Class sedans. And the surround sound audio provided by Burmester filled the interior with crisp, clear and full sound.
The E 300 is a gorgeous car, and by all rights it should be a very appealing package. But the inescapable impression is that designers prioritized the production of still-incubating technology over building a truly excellent luxury sedan.