CES: Mercedes-Benz Unveils Self-Driving Concept Car

Mercedes chief Dieter Zetsche at the F 015 concept introduction Monday at CES

Mercedes head Dieter Zetsche unveiled the car during a keynote Monday devoted to the company's plans for autonomous vehicles, which it predicts "will be a given" by 2030

Declaring that "the car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space," Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche took the wraps off a fuel-cell powered self-driving concept car Monday evening in a keynote address at the CES International show in Las Vegas.

The F 015 Luxury in Motion is built around an unusually large cabin that Mercedes likens to a lounge, with four seats that swivel to face each other when the car is in autonomous mode. Gesture- and eye-tracking activated LED screens mounted on the instrument panel and rear and side panels of the cabin control air conditioning, entertainment and other functions and display virtual landscapes synchronized with the car's motion.

The F 015 was developed in conjunction with an internal Mercedes study "City of the Future 2030+" that envisions a fast-paced, crowded urban environment in which self-driving cars "are a given" and drivers, relieved of the burden of navigating traffic jams and tedious commutes, use their time in the car to relax or work.

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Although the F 015 can be driven manually, the default is autonomous: a telescoping steering wheel hidden behind a panel automatically emerges when the driver's seat is swiveled to face the front of the car. A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity that powers the car--Mercedes estimates a range of about 600 miles, the equivalent of a diesel car but with zero emissions. 

Using 3-D stereoscopic cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors, the car constantly monitors its surroundings in a 360-degree radius and transmits the data to its computers, which enables the car to pilot itself without inputs from the driver. Large LED modules mounted on the front and rear use data from these sensors to flash warnings to pedestrians and following cars to slow or stop if there are obstructions.

Mercedes has been developing autonomous cars for 15 years--its Intelligent Drive system, introduced in the 2014 S Class, allows the car to drive itself in traffic jams up to 37 miles per hour, self-park, stay in its lane and automatically adjust the suspension as road conditions change. In 2013, a lightly modified S-500 sedan drove itself 60 miles through mixed urban and suburban traffic conditions in Germany following the route taken by Bertha Benz, wife and business partner of Mercedes founder Karl Benz, in the first long-distance journey by car, in 1888.

Audi and BMW sell cars with semi-autonomous features and are deeply invested in driverless technology--a specially equipped Audi A7 will arrive at CES tomorrow from Silicon Valley after piloting itself 550 miles at speeds up to 70 miles per hour to demonstrate Audi's autonomous car technology. But Mercedes is still considered the leader in the field because of the tight integration of the Intelligent Drive system with the driving experience.

That driverless cars are on their way is a foregone conclusion--car manufacturers predict highly autonomous cars will arrive between 2020 and 2030 while Google, which has been testing a fleet of self-driving cars on California highways, suggests they are only three years away.

In a research report, Morgan Stanley predicted that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles would contribute $1.3 trillion to theU.S. economy through cost savings from reduced fuel consumption and accidents, including $507 billion in productivity gains because people could work while commuting instead of driving.

Semi-autonomous driving features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic parking and collision avoidance are already incorporated into many new models and are increasingly popular with consumers, according to J.D. Power and Associates. In recent surveys, 24 percent of all respondents said they would be be willing to pay as much as $4,000 more for an autonomous driving mode — increasing to 41 percent for Generation Y respondents, who value car ownership far less than their parents.

On Monday Mercedes reported record 2014 sales of 330,391 vehicles, up 5.7 percent from 2013. Plunging gas prices and the surgingU.S. economy are lifting the prospects for most car makers--Audi and BMW also reported record sales for the year.