ALAMEDA—The Mercedes-Benz F 015 looks so out-of-this-world amazing, even people who can’t stand the idea of a self-driving car might still be willing to ride in it.
And that’s exactly what I did on Tuesday—not on city streets, but within the controlled environment of a former naval base. Other journalists and I chatted in the space-age cabin while the car drove. We skimmed music choices on integrated touchscreens that lined the walls—while the car drove. I waved at the dashboard to adjust the air conditioning. The F 015 drove.
First unveiled at CES, the F 015 is just a concept car. It may never become a retail product, and its engineers caution that some of its capabilities are many years away from reality. Still, it takes self-driving cars beyond Google’s LiDAR-studded experiments, and reconsiders how the most cutting-edge auto tech could change people's lives.
Why this matters: Self-driving cars may be coming in 2020, but we’re nowhere near figuring out how to incorporate them into our everyday world. We don’t know how much to trust them with the thousands of split-second decisions that driving requires. We don’t how to behave as passengers or pedestrians. And, honestly, some of us just don’t want to give up control.
And yet, the the F 015 has captured the imagination in a way I'd normally have expected for a car like the Alfa Romeo 4C, a for-reals baby Ferrari that's the complete opposite: an adrenaline rush, not a German-engineered nap room. So think of the F 015 as an ambassador for autonomous driving. It inspires people to think about all these issues simply because they're excited about the car.
Going beyond Google
Google's experimental self-driving cars, with their whirling roof-mounted LiDARS, have turned heads on San Francisco Bay Area roads for several years. In 2014, the company unveiled a more radical, bug-shaped design that had no steering wheel or brakes, and embodied a utopian vision of giving mobility back to blind men and senior citizens.
The F 015 looks a lot less quirky than the Google cars, but it’s more than an aesthetic step up: It’s designed under the assumption that we’ll be spending more time in our cars in the future. “Life will be more hectic,” explained Koert Groeneveld of Mercedes-Benz. As megacities rise, getting around a denser urban environment will take longer and be more difficult. “Private space and time will become luxury commodities,“ Groeneveld predicted. A self-driving car like the F 015 would let people use the time in traffic for other activities.
That’s why the F 015 looks like a lounge on wheels. Mercedes-Benz wants you to relax while the car handles the logistics. The company designed it with an unusually long wheelbase of 3.6 meters (about 11.8 feet) to allow for plenty of cabin room, as well as a more comfortable ride. Even the saloon doors offer a wide, welcoming embrace as you enter the car.
The four captain's chairs have built-in seat belts and soft leather cushioning. (Although the white leather's impracticality baffles me, as this car is definitely not self-cleaning.) The front seats turn to face the passengers. A touchscreen coffee table extends into the middle of the space with a quick tap, and even more touchscreens are built into the doors. Warm wood floors whisper of home.
Oh, you want to drive it? The steering wheel, accelerator and pedal are still there, though they fold away when you’re not driving. The dashboard is a touchscreen, too, and you can control it using eye or hand movements. Eye movements weren't working when we demoed the car, but the gesture control worked pretty well: You have to learn where to hold your hand so the dashboard can sense it.
Outside the car, the F 015 combines sensors with lights and vocal cues to communicate directly with pedestrians and other drivers. If the F 015 sees a biped waiting to cross, for instance, it’ll stop, beam a laser crosswalk onto the pavement, and tell him or her to “please go ahead.” (How long until some rascals hack into this system and alter the phrases?)
That crosswalk gimmick isn't just noblesse oblige, either. Mercedes-Benz is trying to figure out how a self-driving car would interact with its environment: pedestrians, bicyclists, and other cars of course—which may or may not be self-driving.
The company set up a demo where Roomba-like rolling robots took on these different roles and performed activities such as parking, playing a lawn game, and crossing an intersection while studiously avoiding collisions with each other.
Our ride ended all too soon. I had just set up a panoramic view of verdant forests on the touchscreens. Our driver shooed us out, and used a smartphone app to send the F 015 to its parking space. Engineers checked it over carefully, while hungry cameras snapped at the car from behind.
My reluctance to leave the F 015 highlights the most intriguing idea about this concept car: It’s designed for lingering. The comfy chairs, huge touchscreen vistas, and sociable seating intend to make your journey into something relaxing rather than arduous.
I don't like the idea that I'll need all this comfort because the future holds nothing but traffic jams and two-hour commutes. But I do like the idea that this car could save me from traffic's worst stresses, and that might be worth giving up some control.