Mercedes-Benz's self-driving car is called the F 015 Luxury in Motion, and the slick silver pod lives up to its name.
Bedecked in wood floors, white leather seats, metal accents and stocked with computers, cameras and sensors, the F 015 is an extravagant ride for the year 2030.
But the greatest luxury of the future, Mercedes said during a test-drive event in Alameda, California, is time. Why waste your life stuck in traffic, peering angrily over the steering wheel at the bumper in front of you when you can sit back, relax and let your car do all the work? Better yet, why not turn the driver and passenger seats around and have a conversation with the people sitting in the back?
The F 015 is like a lounge on wheels. It's also a mobile office and a private sanctuary. In other words, it's whatever you make it thanks in part to on-door, rear and center-console displays that act as portals to a virtual world. Sync the car with your phone and you're instantly in touch with contacts for a call. Stressful day at the office? Pull up images of your favorite vacation spot on the displays, select some soothing music and retreat from the commotion going on right outside the car doors.
F 015, take the wheel
Of course, while you're occupied doing anything but driving, the F 015 is hurtling through space. I had one "oh crap" moment as the F 015 accelerated on its own, no driver at the helm to brake if necessary. Even more disconcerting: there was no one looking out the front windshield to see where we were going. The driver can manually take over the F 015 at any time, but still, you have to trust it's not going to drive you straight into the San Francisco Bay.
Any passenger can technically become the driver - or "conductor," as Mercedes refers to whoever is controlling the car - accelerating or decelerating the F 015 by touching the door displays. This particular software wasn't working properly during my test drive, unfortunately. I wanted to give my fellow passengers a scare.
The F 015 is a concept car, developed over the course of the last four years and designed to show what's possible for the future of autonomous vehicles. The car I rode in was on a pre-programmed route, so I didn't get the full self-driving experience. When I asked if the moving test-track car would stop if I walked in front of it, I was told no. That said, the technology is there for the F 015 to truly drive on its own, it's just that Mercedes is concerned about everything else around the car, such as other vehicles and people like myself who may take testing a little too far.
To help ease self-driving vehicles' social acceptance and increase safety, Mercedes developed systems and signals to communicate with the outside world, such as lasers that project images like a crosswalk for pedestrians. The car will also speak to let people know it's OK to walk in front of the car, for example.
I had the chance to speak with Peter Lehmann, chief engineer of the F 015, about the future of autonomous cars, the challenges of creating a self-driving vehicle and just when we'll see these machines on the road. As for how much the car will cost, Mercedes didn't offer more than to say the F 015 concept car is insured in the double-digit millions.
- Top image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz