Autonomous driving is the siren call of leading-edge automotive technology, so it was clear that the E-class would follow the S down the hands-free highway. In fact, Mercedes has enhanced the system it debuted on the S-class. (First though, a word about the need to steer. Yes, the 2017 E-class, like the S-class, can steer itself along for brief periods. No, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to leave the steering to Benz. The company describes it as “a semi-automated assistance system in which the driver still needs to keep their hands on the steering wheel.”) The system, which is again a function of Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, can steer autonomously—sorry, “provide significantly enhanced steering assistance”—not only on highways but also on secondary roads even with no lane markings, the latter at speeds up to 60 mph. It does so by following the car ahead and by scanning for structures such as guardrails and even buildings at the side of the road. As for the cruise-control function, it works at speeds from zero to 120 mph, can creep along in stop-and-go traffic, and can adjust a set speed in response to speed-limit signs or speed-limit info taken from the nav system.
Automated Parking. A car that can steer itself into a parking space is no longer news, but the E-class ups the wow factor by parking itself while the “driver” stands outside of the vehicle. The driver tells the car where to park via the Remote Parking Pilot app on a previously paired, Bluetooth-connected smartphone, so in that sense he is still “driving” the vehicle. The car can maneuver into a perpendicular space, parallel park, or pull forward into a tight garage. The driver initiates the maneuver by tracing a circle on the smartphone and must continue that action for the car to keep moving. The phone also needs to be within 10 feet or so of the car. Pretty cool, huh? Too bad the U.S. market won’t get it—just as we won’t get the version in the 2016 BMW 7-series, either. (Land Rover has demonstrated similar tech, too.)
Cell Phone as Car Key. Whereas BMW’s new 7 offers a key fob with a touch screen, the new E-class takes the opposite tack, turning the touch screen in your pocket into a key fob. You can then hold a paired smartphone up to the driver’s door handle to unlock the car; the connection works via Near Field Communication protocol (used also by Apple Pay). Once inside the car, placing the phone on the wireless charging pad enables the ignition. Phones need to be NFC compatible and equipped with a secure SIM card.
Automatic Braking. Automatic braking to avoid or mitigate a crash has been bundled with forward-collision warning for a while, but the new E-class can initiate braking earlier (when the system detects that an evasive maneuver is not possible), and it works under more scenarios, including cross traffic entering the lane (also when backing up) or a pedestrian stepping out into your path. In the latter scenario, the driver is further aided by Evasive Steering Assist, which adds torque to the steering to help the driver swerve correctly to avoid the person. It does not, however, initiate the steering action. You still have to do that.
Car-to-X Communication. The E-class takes the first baby steps toward a future of car-to-car communication. Using the vehicle’s built-in data connection, the driver can push a button on the screen to indicate a road hazard such as an accident, a disabled vehicle, or icy pavement. The alert goes to a dedicated computer network that can analyze it and then send out alerts to other, similarly equipped Mercedes vehicles in the area (keyed to those that are most likely to encounter the hazard, based on their current route). The warning consists of an icon on a map and then, when the car is closer, an audible warning. The system also is set up to automatically receive alerts triggered via airbag deployment or even cars with their hazard lights on. Later, the system could receive alerts from emergency vehicles or from other manufacturers’ vehicles, as the German automakers are working on a common car-communication standard. The more vehicles that are reporting in, the better the information going out will be.
Adaptive LED Matrix Lighting. Introduced on the CLS for 2014, Mercedes’ Multibeam LED headlamps are enhanced for the 2017 E-class. The individual LED count increases from 24 to 84, each individually controllable—switching between high- and low-beams, and the curve-following adaptive-lighting functions are now achieved entirely via electronics. The light pattern is also altered in city driving or via information from the navigation system (such as when approaching intersections). Additionally, the light unit glows blue, which just looks cool.
Other Safety Stuff. A few lesser items are new, or new to Mercedes. As part of the Pre-Safe collision-readiness technology, the active-contour seats will quickly puff up the outboard bolster in the event some phone-gazing nitwit sails through a red light and T-bones your Benz, giving you a bit more cushion between your ribcage and his grille. When a collision is imminent, the system also puts an interference signal out over the audio system (it sounds like a test of the Emergency Broadcast System), to which occupants’ ears react so they won’t be as startled by the noise of the crash. Inflatable rear seatbelts (seen first on the 2011 Ford Explorer, and currently available in the S-class) also can now be had.