Mercedes is perfecting the autopilot

May 23, 2013: 1:29 PM ET

The German car giant's new S Class sedan drives itself. Starting price: $100,000.

By Doron Levin

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FORTUNE -- The race to build an everyday car equipped with autopilot that can prevent accidents and take over from a driver about to fall asleep or make a catastrophic error is inching closer to reality with the introduction of Mercedes-Benz's 2014 S Class sedan.

Last week Daimler AG engineers unveiled the new S Class in Hamburg, Germany. Yes, it's luxurious, a "rolling spa," as described by one reviewer, which includes seats that simulate a shiatsu massage and an "active perfuming system" in the glovebox that can project any of five aromas into the cabin at five-minute intervals, according to preference.

Daimler, having failed to make Maybach its ultimate expression of luxury, has returned the S Class to that role. The new S Class contains every mechanical, electronic, and fashion refinement that engineers could imagine. But perhaps most impressive and relevant to the evolution of personal transportation are those features, such as 3-D cameras and radar devices that make S Class -- not necessarily the S Class's driver -- aware of surroundings, road, and other vehicles.

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If a car is overtaking rapidly, the S Class can warn or prevent the driver from turning into its path. Cameras under the car can detect a pothole or pavement imperfection and adjust the suspension to encounter the bump. What Daimler calls "Pre-Safe" technology can detect a pedestrian or a likely collision and activate brakes more quickly and more strongly than the driver.

"Intelligent assistance systems analyze complex situations and better recognize potential dangers out on the road with the aid of improved environment sensor systems," said Prof. Thomas Weber, member of the Daimler Board of Management responsible for group research and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. "Figuratively speaking, the new S-Class doesn't just have eyes at the front, it has 360-degree all-round vision."

A feature that Daimler calls "Stop & Go Pilot" lets drivers stuck in lower speed traffic jams set the S Class to follow the car in front of it, braking and accelerating appropriately, while letting the driver concentrate on something else -- phone calls or whatever isn't prohibited by local law, such as texting.

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Volkswagen, General Motors (GM), Toyota (TM), BMW, and others are developing systems that will allow cars within a few years to drive themselves safely to preset destinations with minimal driver supervision. The main reason for such systems, automakers say, is that they minimize human error, the prime factor for almost all collisions. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication will add a further level of safety and help to optimize the flow of traffic.

The engineering and research that created the new S Class is costly and one factor behind what will probably be a starting price of $100,000, up from the current $93,000. But if the public perceives the features offered in the S Class as desirable, they soon could find their way into more everyday models, as the cost of offering exotic technology falls with mass production.

Daimler's new Mercedes-Benz S Class will encounter a skeptical public that is all too familiar with the frequent "crashing" of personal computers, glitches with software, dropped cellphone calls, and high-technology's other imperfections. But an increasingly large and confident chorus of voices -- mostly located in automotive R&D laboratories -- now are convinced that "driverless" cars will arrive in showrooms sooner than most people imagine.

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