By Dan Neil
Two years ago I got a souvenir from a California Highway Patrolman in Mendocino County — thank you, sir! Can I have another? — which I have finally expunged from my record by completing an online traffic school.
This reasonably priced formality, picked at random, turned out to be the Harvard of traffic schools: 340 minutes; 12 exams covering the A-Z of the California DMV code; and an hour-long final exam from which, if one prepared carefully, one could actually learn something.
I discovered people are terrible drivers. The statistics will break your heart. All those beautiful cars and the souls in them.
Motor vehicle accidents cost about 1.6% of GDP annually, roughly $250 billion in direct costs and quite nearly $1 trillion in productivity and lost quality of life, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2015, 35,092 were killed on the American roadways; 4.4 million injured in more than 20 million vehicles.
For all the scale of the carnage, the causes are about the same as in the days of tail fins: 29% of all fatal collisions involved alcohol and 27% excessive speed. Good Lord. These were practically varsity sports in my high school.
So whenever I meet skepticism regarding vehicle autonomy — the emerging technology that allows cars to assist, and eventually relieve, the human operator — I point to the devastation caused by the sloppy, sleepy, emotionally impaired wetware currently behind the wheel. Can we worry about Skynet after we stop people from running into telephone poles?
We are now in the first blush of this technology, and the test car for the week — a sumptuously equipped, nail-polish-red 2017 Mercedes-Benz /zigman2/quotes/201850364/delayed XE:DAI -1.78% /zigman2/quotes/203566154/delayed DDAIF -2.05% E400 4MATIC Wagon — bristled with Daimler’s most advanced driver-assist devices. For example, the car’s “Distance Pilot DISTRONIC” system can follow cars ahead on highways at speeds up to 130 mph, and up to 80 mph on unmarked surfaces. And they say religion is dead in Germany.
Now, look, I know safety is kind of a dreary subject and many would rather hear about racing this big, beautiful wagon (an estate, in European parlance) over a Tyrolean pass with a boot full of desperately needed champagne. Our visiting E-wagon represents the 10th generation of one of the company’s most diverse global products. At one end you’ll find the sparely equipped hired cars that prowl the streets of Istanbul. At the other, this splendid, utterly bratty automobile. According to company research, the net worth of E-Class wagon buyers is among the highest of all its clientele (say klee-un-tell). Very big in the horsey set, Lovie.
Common to the redesigned sedan, the wagon rides on a 2.5-inch longer wheelbase, and is a bit longer overall and lower than the previous edition. The exterior styling works better than that of the E sedan, says I. The arc of the windows lands with more satisfaction under the long roof. In any event, the new wagon puts sleek cheek to the wind, a low .28 coefficient of drag. The cabin noise levels are particularly good for an interior open to the rear cargo area.
In the U.S., the five-passenger seating is augmented by standard jump seats hidden — and I do mean hidden — in the floor of the cargo area. These are small and purgatorial. “I’ll put you in the jump seats!” says Dad. “No, no! We’ll be good!”
The base price will come in around $64,000 (late winter 2017 availability) topping out at about $90,000 for the maximally equipped version I was driving (heated armrests!). The powertrain consists of a refined, resonant 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 (329 hp/354 lb-ft at 5,250 rpm); backed up by a nine-speed gearbox, as seamless as riding pants, and rear-biased all-wheel drive. The E400 wagon feels beastly solid, which at a 4,299-pound curb weight is well earned.
Initial acceleration to 60 mph takes less than 6 seconds—the gears ticking off rhythmically while your corgis bark, squashed against the hatch rear glass. A bright snore of an exhaust rasp will be permitted here, Mein Herr.
Our test car was also equipped with Mercedes’s elaborate air-spring suspension, with three-stage ride-height, active body control, and multi-mode, speed-adaptive damping. This is basically how flying carpets would work, if they could, with the car gimbaling tranquilly in three axes of pneumatically damped rotation, just hauling butt down the interstate. So that’s pretty special.
Mercedes-Benz bundles its latest kit in the Driver Assistance Package Plus, including the Drive Pilot. Reflecting the R&D (and legal) department’s current best practices, these systems won’t drive for you — at least, not for very long. The human factors are a bit more subtle. The Drive Pilot systems operate largely in the background, in ways that reduce driver workload without drawing attention to themselves. These human+ operations soon sink below the driver’s awareness, weaving themselves into the neurons, making the driving ineffably easier, less taxing mentally and physically.
Drift out of your lane and the Mercedes will alert you and gently correct your caroming. Doze and it will wake you. Fail to brake for slowed traffic ahead and the car will warn you; if you still take no action (a long text?), it will begin braking to avoid collision. Swerve as if to crowd a nearby vehicle, and it will warn you, then gently resist your steering input, electronically tugging at the wheel as if it were your sleeve. No judgies. Just helping.
By virtue of its sensor array and multi-wavelength vision, the big Merc car also endows its drivers with better reflexes and farther sight, especially at night. According to Mercedes’ engineers, the car is able to detect cross-traffic on a collision course — a car running a stop sign, for example—and will begin braking and bracing for impact before the driver even registers the threat.
A pedestrian suddenly steps off the curb. By the time the driver reflexively wrenches the wheel to avoid, the E400 will have already calculated the ideal brake and steering response to augment the driver’s likely inputs, modeled over years of behavioral research.
With this invisible hand at work, every interstate road just seems a little bit straighter, every country lane a bit wider, sweeping curves truer and parking spots bigger.
But with the DMV’s grim figures in mind, I note these sorts of systems will not only assist the able, but also the under-abled, those who, for whatever reason — fatigue, distraction, drink — maybe shouldn’t be behind the wheel.
Better drivers. It’s what the world needs now.