Ford Mustang Mach-E is due Level 2+ Bluecruise software in UK next year
Ford is showcasing Level 2+, Mercedes is exploring Level 3. What’s the difference and what are the opportunities?
A short Twitter video posted August 1 showing the head of Ford‘s European EV division, Martin Sander, driving a Ford Mustang Mach-E hands-free on the M25 raised hope anew. Could we really be on the cusp of ceding control of the dullest driving to our car?
The promise of autonomous driving has long been in the post as technology companies overhype the prospect of computers taking over in the near future.
The shifting chimera of the robotaxi, however, has been countered in recent months with the rise of ever-more clever versions of advanced driving systems that are accessible to far more than just a few riders in San Francisco.
The vision and radar-based technology meant to encourage safer driving by assisting our lane-keeping or keeping an eye on sharp braking from the vehicle ahead is now becoming clever enough to allow us to remove hands from the wheel, if not to stop paying attention.
The Mach-E driven by Sander on London’s famously gummed-up orbital motorway uses a trial version of Ford’s hands-free Bluecruise, which Sander said in a reply to Autocar is planned for launch in Europe, including the UK, by summer next year.
— Martin Sander (@MSander22) August 1, 2022
In the semi-official classification of autonomous driving, this is Level 2+, which is hands off the wheel but eyes on the road. That means the driver still has to pay attention, but we’re inching closer to Level 3, where the car can take over entirely in certain situations.
Level 2+ is essentially what Tesla operates under in the US and elsewhere outside Europe, although you wouldn’t know it from its Full Self-Driving label. However Ford’s Bluecruise and General Motors’ rival Super Cruise have more safety systems in place, including an eye-tracker that makes sure you’re paying attention and a limit to the roads you can use it on.
Ford claims that 65,000 drivers are now using Bluecruise in the US, with 15,000 receiving it through over-the-air software updates.
Ford charges $600 (£500) for a three-year subscription to Bluecruise in the US, and we can expect similar here. The company has remained sceptical about some aspects of software subscription but not autonomous features.
“It feels like that’s the first shippable software that we can send to a car that customers are really willing to pay a lot of money for,” Ford CEO Jim Farley told a conference hosted by Bernstein in June.
Ford isn’t the only one looking for a Level 2+ revenue boost. BMW has said it will offer what it calls address-to-address Level 2+ capability on its Neue Klasse EVs, due from 2025, which will be downloaded via a software update for those willing to pay. We don’t know exactly what address-to-address will mean, but likely the car will drive itself not just on highway but on city streets.
There’s not much clarity on regulation surrounding Level 2+ in Europe, according to Gartner analyst Pedro Pacheco. “What the regulation cares more about is whether the driver is forced to pay attention to the road ahead,” he said. “If the system forces the driver to pay attention, that means it’s the driver who’s liable.”
The big jump is Level 3, which is when you can take your eyes off the road. This has been rolled out in a limited programme by Honda in Japan and in Europe by Mercedes-Benz with the new S-Class and EQS.
Mercedes’ so- called Drive Pilot takes over at speeds below 37mph on motorways and costs from €5000 (£4228) on the S-Class and €7430 (£6283) on the EQS in Germany.
Mercedes is starting to ship cars with the system now in Germany, which has approved the system, the company told Autocar – and other countries will follow.
“We’re watching the developments in other countries continuously and plan to introduce the system in other markets once all prerequisites have been met,” a Mercedes spokesman said, referencing both regulations and the availability of high definition maps.
Mercedes is also likely moving cautiously. “The problem isn’t regulation but the fact that the manufacturer needs to be sure the system works reliably,” Pacheco said.
The UK has also said that it will allow cars with Level 3 ALKS (automatic lane keeping system), although it has banned drivers from focusing on anything other than the car’s dashboard screen. No system has been given UK type approval yet.
The extra cost to specify Mercedes’ Drive Pilot system is due to the sheer quantity of extra tech needed, for example a lidar sensor and redundancy built into the steering, braking and electrical systems in case of failure. It also features a camera in the rear window, microphones to listen out for sirens, a wetness sensor in a wheel arch to check for rain (at which point it hands back to the driver) and a more powerful GPS system.
“We will see a step-by-step pushing of the envelop,” Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius told the Financial Times congress in May. “You get back the ultimate gift back, which is time.”
More and more companies are looking to incorporate lidar, seen as the key sensor to enable Level 3. For example, the Lotus Eletre electric SUV, revealed earlier this year, can boast four of them.
That might be overkill, mind you. Bentley is evaluating whether to fit one or two onto its new EV, due to be launched in 2024. Bentley owners are no longer chauffeured in the main, but they will appreciate hands-free driving. “Anything that takes the boredom and the stress out of a long journey, they will want it,” Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark said.
However, there are still obstacles to overcome, for example the sheer consumption of energy in an era when every watt counts to extend the range. We’re getting closer to the handover point, but still expectations need to be kept in check, Hallmark warned: “The idea of traveling for six hours and sleeping before waking up to your destination, I think we will be on Mars before we achieve that.”
Cruise’s epic cash spend on robotaxis
General Motors’ half-year results revealed an alarming statistic: the company’s Cruise self-driving division consumed half a billion dollars between April and June. And it will continue burning cash at the same rate until the end of the year.
Cruise head Kyle Vogt defended its spending strongly in an earnings call to analysts on at the end of July. “When you have got the opportunity to go after a $1 trillion market where you can have a highly differentiated technology and product, you don’t casually weigh into that, you attack it aggressively,” he said.
Cruise has just started actually earning some money with robotaxi rides in San Francisco using Chevrolet Bolt EVs and has racked up 250,000 rides so far. Soon the company will unveil the production version of the Cruise Origin purpose-built robotaxi (above) with no steering wheel, pedals or mirrors.
Cruise also plans to expand into other cities and countries, although it hasn’t named them yet.
Meanwhile, its rival, Argo AI, which has received heavy investment from both Ford and Volkswagen, has taken the pedal off its own spending after announcing that it was letting go of 150 employees – around 6% of the workforce. As well as testing robotaxis in Miami and Austin, Argo AI plans to launch an robotaxi service in Germany by 2025.