Autonomous driving: What makes Mercedes different from Tesla

Status: 01/21/2022 3:36 p.m

In the future, Mercedes will work together with the laser radar specialist Luminar on autonomous driving. The US competitor Tesla is pursuing a completely different strategy. What distinguishes the security systems?

By Mark Ehren,

In the future, Mercedes will cooperate with the US company Luminar to advance the development of self-driving cars. Luminar is a specialist in so-called lidar technology, a form of three-dimensional laser scanning. This allows vehicles to scan their surroundings to determine distances and speeds from other road users. The aim is to use Luminar’s technology in Mercedes production cars, the automaker said.

Sensors are getting cheaper

Luminar’s lidar system is said to be able to see around 250 meters at highway speeds. According to Luminar, the system will cost between $500 and $1,000 per vehicle. This brings prices down significantly, because lidar sensors used to cost tens of thousands of US dollars.

The partnership is groundbreaking for the industry, says Luminar founder and boss Austin Russell, according to a Daimler press release. Mercedes parent Daimler also secured 1.5 million shares of Luminar worth around $20 million as part of the deal.

In the industry, the assessment has largely prevailed that, at least in the near future, self-driving cars will not be able to do without lidar technology.

Cameras and Ultrasound at Tesla

However, the US electric car manufacturer Tesla does not share this opinion. CEO Elon Musk had described lidar sensors as “expensive” and “unnecessary” in the past. Last year, the company even got rid of the simpler radar sensors previously used on Model 3 and Model Y without replacement. Instead, Tesla primarily wants to rely on camera-based image processing of the environment in order to achieve its goals for autonomous driving. According to Tesla, eight cameras should guarantee 360-degree monitoring of the vehicle’s surroundings with a range of up to 250 meters. They are supplemented by twelve ultrasonic sensors.

However, the company has so far not been able to fulfill its promises with regard to self-driving Teslas. Tesla has been offering the FSD (“Full Self Driving”) option to customers who are willing to pay for years. However, this means the degree of automation “Level 2”, the so-called “assisted mode”. The driver must be ready to intervene at any time. The highest level so far has been the unrivaled “Level 5” (autonomous mode with full automation), at which a driver could theoretically go to sleep.

Only recently did the group raise the price for an FSD system in the USA by a further 2,000 to 12,000 dollars – although the software in its most recent version has not progressed beyond a beta stage, ie an incomplete version.

World’s first approval for “Level 3”

Mercedes is already ahead of Tesla. At the end of last year, the Stuttgart-based company was the first car manufacturer in the world to receive approval to sell vehicles that drive autonomously according to “Level 3”, i.e. in the so-called “automated mode”. The driver no longer has to constantly monitor the vehicle.

Instead, if necessary, the system prompts him within a warning period to take over the steering wheel. However, the system, which Mercedes calls “Drive Pilot”, is currently only approved by the German Federal Motor Transport Authority for speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour on suitable sections of the motorway. The system only works if at least two of the three security systems (cameras, ultrasound, laser scanner) are working.

Steering assistant supports drivers

Tesla takes the position that driver assistance systems generally enable more safety. According to the company, Tesla vehicles traveling in so-called autopilot mode were involved in an accident every 4.3 million miles on average in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Autopilot technology is a traffic-aware cruise control that adapts your speed to surrounding traffic. A steering assistant also supports the driver in certain situations. According to the US company, Tesla vehicles in which these functions were switched off statistically had an accident every 1.59 million miles, i.e. around two and a half times as often.

Overall, according to calculations by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there is an average car accident every 484,000 miles in the United States.

Experts should now be watching with excitement what safety gains the technology from Mercedes will offer – and whether Tesla boss Elon Musk will prevail with his strategy, which is unusual in the industry comparison.

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