In Luc Besson's spectacular sci-fi movie The Fifth Element, set in 2263, Bruce Willis' character, Korben Dallas, is a New York City cab driver in a world where autonomous flying cars are everyday transport. The Fifth Element was released in 1997, and 18 years on, we are still a very long way from such a scenario. But have no doubt that the motor industry has already taken its first tentative steps toward autonomous driving cars.
The idea of an autonomous driving vehicle is not a new one, but most people are surprised when they learn that the concept was originally mooted in the early days of the motor car by Nikola Tesla (1856-1843), the Serbian American inventor who was one of the fathers of electricity. However, as with many advanced systems, autonomous driving required several enabling technologies to be invented and developed to a certain level before it could even reach the relatively early stage it is at now.
This is all a matter of processor power and programming, and at this early stage of the game the system performs pretty rudimentary tasks without the higher level of cognitive self-awareness and adaptation that will come in time as the technology matures. Underlining this sequence of events, the autonomous driving technology we experienced on the S500 Intelligent Drive test in Silicon Valley in November of 2014 did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, it is the next logical step based on the building blocks of systems that already exist. Today's radar sensors and cameras are just the latest additions in an additive process that began with the basic cruise control function Mercedes has offered since the 1980s.
The systems progressed in stages through Distronic, Distronic Plus, and Distronic Plus with Steering Assist, all the time becoming more intelligent, interactive, and semi-autonomous. Tracing this technological timeline, you can see that autonomous driving was the logical end game all along. However, as with all such inventions, autonomous driving had to wait for the right enabling technologies; in this case, the computer processing power to handle the inputs from various sensors and cameras and control the vehicle autonomously.
It is a fact that even 20 years ago, the ECUs in cars already had more computing power than the roomful of computers that sent man to the moon in the 1960s. But a true autonomous driving car will require a huge amount of computing power and vehicle intelligence.
According to Rob Csonger, vice-president and general manager of Nvidia's automotive division, "The car is rapidly going to go from the most 'stupid' electronic device a consumer owns to the most powerful supercomputer a consumer will ever own."
"The ability for a car to detect, understand, and react in the blink of an eye will require a staggering amount of processing power as automakers add ever more sensors for driving assistance, infotainment, and navigation," he explained.
However, the biggest obstacle to adoption of autonomous driving technology is worldwide legislation. While California has already passed laws that allow such technology on its roads, there is still a long way to go elsewhere. The issue of liability alone in case of an accident is a veritable minefield. The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) has established a set of internationally accepted standards for autonomous driving vehicles. The S-Class prototype represents Level 2, while a completely autonomous driven Level 4 car will be able to receive destination instructions from its occupants and take them there all by itself. A Level 4 car retains a manual-over-ride capability so a human driver can take over. Level 5 uses exactly the same technology but is totally autonomous with no manual over-ride possible.
The reality is that we will not achieve Level 4/5 for perhaps another 20 years. While the rapidly advancing speed and capability of computers will allow the technology to mature quite rapidly, there are many peripheral issues that make practical implementation a steep uphill battle.
Mercedes is using the term "Modern Luxury" to describe the broad palette of ways in which it is redefining the age-old concept of material and mental well-being. Projected into the future, Modern Luxury includes quality of space and also time freed from the traditional mundane tasks like driving in traffic jams in the city or on the motorway. These can be given to an autonomous driving car, allowing the driver to get on with more productive tasks such as making phone calls, doing work on a laptop or tablet, or even watching a movie.
Some aspects of driving are a chore no matter how much you like cars. Driving along a highway with a low speed limit for miles on end is one of these uninspiring tasks that can be handed over to a machine that will not lose concentration and crash due to boredom, frustration, or inattention. When you consider how much of people's lives are wasted in traffic jams, both in terms of lost work productivity and leisure time, the case for autonomous driving makes itself. Ultimately, time is the greatest luxury, and one that money cannot buy. An autonomous driving car gives its driver back a lot of time.
Packaging is the primary conceptual and practical issue for car designers and engineers. But while they always seem able to make small gains here and there with each new model, there is a finite amount of space that can be won in a vehicle of a given size.
Space is certainly a luxury, and the F 015 Concept car shows that Mercedes-Benz is not just thinking about the technologies that can be fitted into a vehicle, but also the ways in which cars can be made more space efficient.
It is always a trade-off between where you place the engine, gearbox, fuel tank, suspension, and other mandatory hardware for best space efficiency and loaded and unloaded weight distribution. Sometimes, the only solution is to challenge convention by changing the rules, which the S-Class-sized F 015 concept rewrites in one fell swoop. With a future electric car removing the needs for an internal combustion engine and fuel tank, the whole space utilization equation changes dramatically with much more space given to passengers to relax.
Because the electric cars we have seen up till now were conceived in the image of existing design stereotypes, they do not even begin to scratch the surface of the re-packaging possibilities opened up by going electric. Taking the decision to unshackle themselves from the expected, the Mercedes design team has broken the mold to make a quantum leap in packaging solutions.
Placing one electric motor in each wheel hub removes the need for a space-consuming engine bay and drivetrain intrusion into the passenger compartment. Meanwhile, the batteries are placed under the central section of the floor, creating the low center of gravity required for good handling and stability.
The F 015 Concept's construction is also revolutionary. Thanks to a structure made from composite materials along with lightweight high-strength steel and alloys, the F 015 Concept weighs up to 40 percent less than a current vehicle of the same size.
We have addressed the time-saving quality of life issues of autonomous driving here before. Today, we are in San Francisco to experience the life-enriching potential of the space freed up by this dramatic re-imagining of the motorcar as we know it.
Stepping into the F 015 is exceptionally easy. The opposed hinged doors on both sides of the car open wide, revealing an unusually spacious and welcoming cabin featuring a wood paneled floor and four seats with ample space around them. Each seat swivels outward to aid ingress and egress. As with the sports seats in an SL, the seatbelts are integrated, and once seated, you can either face another passenger or the direction of your choosing.
As the doors gently hum closed, you find that the predominantly white interior helps to maintain the illusion of a bright and airy space, and without the physical constraints of a center console and fixed seating you do not feel hemmed in. Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The F 015 glided along a pre-programmed route on the runway of the former Alameda Naval Air Station, which was closed in 1997, and where some scenes for the movie The Matrix Reloaded were filmed. During this unique ride, an engineer showed us how the on-board systems worked. Apart from being able to hand off destination control to each of the four occupants, you can even display movies or your holiday pictures on the screens in the translucent door panels. As the car is Internet connected, you can also display maps and other information on the go.
Freed from the task of driving, you have total freedom to interact with your passengers and continue your activities from home or the office while the car takes you to your destination.
People are very sensitive to their environments, and compared to riding in a conventional car, the sense of light and space in the F 015 makes every journey feel like a liberating experience. It's a brave new world, and one that many would readily embrace. As Howard Hughes famously said, "It's the way of the future!"