Mercedes’ self-driving S-Class sedan is being tested through China’s tricky highways

Article by Christian A., on November 6, 2017

For those of you who have been to China, you have probably noticed that their highways are very different from those in the United States and Europe. For example, each lane in China has a different speed limit. But there are many other challenges and as a result, even visitors will have to obtain local driving licenses in order to drive there.

Now, with its variations and unfamiliar rules, you would probably wonder how autonomous or driverless cars would work, right? It’s even more complicated for cars that were developed and tested in Europe and the United States. So what exactly will happen if a car made from the west was brought to the east? Well, Mercedes-Benz tried it out and has found out. Two months ago, the German automaker started its Intelligent World Drive campaign during the Frankfurt Motor Show, and they boasted that one of its features is that the autonomous driving function adapts to other countries’ ways of driving.

It was the self-driving S-Class that Mercedes-Benz brought to Shanghai, and it was tested on the streets to gather an insight of the real-life traffic and driving situations of China. This information is tasked to help develop the technology.

Some of the challenges that the autonomous car faced stemmed from the high density of cars and other vehicles like two-wheelers and three-wheelers, the sheer number of pedestrians, and the associated traffic behaviour. Apart from that, the car also had to deal with signs and road markings that were different from European countries. One of them would be the white line on the road to denote the minimum distance between vehicles. Another thing that autonomous cars will have to learn would be the different speed limits of certain lanes. That’s another aspect to consider as this is not followed in the US and Europe. Lastly, parking may also be an issue, as there isn’t a standard space size used in China.

In the seven years the Mercedes Benz has had in developing this technology, it has conducted over 5,000 test drives worldwide, with a total of 175 test vehicles to develop driver assistance systems. Overall, they have driven almost 6 million miles in most continents, collecting more than 1.2 million measurements and readings of real life traffic situations.

Today, the company is making use of the five-month old program they call the Intelligent World Drive. Under this program, the S-Class sedan will travel to five different continents to study each place’s local data. The data collected will be used to develop autonomous car technology. The long-wheelbase sedan first did the test in Germany two months ago, and is currently in China to do further tests. Later this month, it will travel to Australia before it heads to South Africa in December.

Press Release

Second leg of the 'Intelligent World Drive': On the road to autonomous driving: Mercedes-Benz on automated test drive in the Shanghai megalopolis

Pedestrian crossings on the motorway, separate speed limits for each lane, traffic signs with Chinese characters – traffic in China differs from that in Europe or the USA in many aspects. That is why China requires foreign motorists to have a Chinese driving licence. Automated and autonomous vehicles also have to prove their fitness for this market in advance. Mercedes-Benz started the 'Intelligent World Drive' at the Frankfurt International Motor Show (IAA) in September to adapt more highly automated driving functions to national user and traffic practices. After the start in Germany, the test vehicle based on the new production S‑Class Saloon is now being put through its paces in test drives in the heavy traffic and exposed to the special national features in the Chinese megalopolis of Shanghai in October. The test vehicle will face different traffic situations on five continents until January 2018 and will also gauge the limits of current systems in the process. The aim is to gather global insights in real-life traffic for the advancement of the technologies.

Urban traffic is one of the biggest challenges on the road to autonomous driving. Automated driving functions must be able to master highly complex traffic situations, which can differ greatly around the world to boot. The focus of the test drives in Shanghai is on assessing the driving behaviour in extremely heavy traffic with its different participants, as well as on infrastructure peculiarities.

Peculiarities in Chinese traffic

The high density of cars, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and pedestrians and the associated traffic behaviour in Chinese cities pose different requirements on automated driving functions than in Europe or the USA. In addition, there are road signs with Chinese characters and lane markings, which in China have different or even multiple meanings. For example, short white lines, known around the world as pedestrian crossings, can also be found on motorways. However, they don't denote a pedestrian crossing, but the minimum distance between vehicles. The sensors must be able to recognise this and interpret it correctly. The same is true for speed limits, which can differ from one lane to another. Another challenge: Parking spaces come in many different shapes and frequently are full of obstacles that are hard to detect for sensors.

These special national features show how important it is to gather worldwide insights into real-life traffic on the road to autonomous driving and to adapt automated driving functions to the particular traffic practices and conditions. In the past seven years, Mercedes-Benz conducted about 5100 test drives around the world with 175 test mules for validations of driver assistance systems in the field alone. The performance of the driver assistance systems was assessed on some 9.5 million kilometres in Europe, the USA, China, Australia and South Africa, and more than 1.2 million measurements were made especially in real-life traffic situations for their continuous advancement.

Research & Development Centre in China – a crucial component of the global R&D network

China is the largest automobile market in the world. The Mercedes-Benz Research & Development Centre in Beijing has therefore been an integral and crucial component of the global R&D network of Daimler AG for over a decade. "Our local R&D activities play a key role in understanding the expectations and needs of our Chinese customers," says Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Engel, Senior Executive Vice President of Daimler Greater China Ltd. and Head of Mercedes‑Benz Research & Development, Platform Management and Procurement China. "In this way, we can offer them tailor-made products, proving our dedication to go that extra mile for them. We are tapping our potential and putting our Chinese customers in the center of our future product development." Meanwhile the number of employees there has grown to around 850.

An important part of the activities of R&D China is to capture and process the local traffic conditions and practices for the development of automated driving functions. In this process, Mercedes-Benz cooperates in, among others, a joint research project with Tsinghua University, China's leading technical university. The Tsinghua-Daimler Research Centre has been working on pioneering projects on the development of sustainable China-specific traffic solutions since 2012. These include active and passive safety systems, accident research, integrated traffic information systems, and the exploration of traffic and traffic regulations in mega-cities.

Intelligent World Drive – five continents in five months

With the 'Intelligent World Drive', Mercedes-Benz is testing automated driving functions on five continents using a test vehicle based on the S‑Class. Over a period of five months, the saloon will face traffic situations of different complexities to gather valuable experiences on the road to autonomous driving. The first leg took place in Germany in September. This test drive focused on assessing the specific driving behaviour on motorways and in tailback situations, an important component for the development of future technologies. The second leg in the Shanghai megalopolis will be followed by test drives in Australia in November and South Africa in December. The focus in Australia will be in particular on the validation of the latest digital map data of HERE, whereas in South Africa pedestrian detection in many new situations will play a major role. The final stop of the 'Intelligent World Drive' will be the CES in Las Vegas in January 2018. The test drive in Greater Los Angeles and afterwards on to Las Vegas will concentrate on evaluating the driving behaviour in heavy American urban traffic and in tailbacks as well as when traffic is overtaking on the right on highways.

Autonomous driving is one of the four strategic areas for the future which form an integral part of the corporate strategy of Daimler AG under the acronym CASE. CASE – these letters are shaping the future of mobility. They stand for networking (Connected), autonomous driving (Autonomous), flexible use (Shared & Services) and electric powertrains (Electric). The aim is to shape intuitive mobility for the customers through intelligent dovetailing of all four CASE fields.

Source: Mercedes-Benz

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