How I Learned to Love the Self-Driving Car

I hated the idea of autonomous cars and how they stripped away everything that made driving, well, driving. Now that I have kids who constantly distract me on the road, a car that takes control could be just what I need.

by Nicholas McClelland
Originally Published: 
Mercedes Benz E Class

Somewhere along a late summer drive, my heart accelerates to a double-time beat even though I’m going a mere 50 mph. I flip the turn signal on and the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG steers into the next lane. We then casually blast past a slow-moving sedan. I’m only traveling at 50mph, but here’s what accounts for my pulse: The car is performing these maneuvers on its own, keeping its speed and course via an adaptive cruise control, and it’s freaking me the fuck out. This might be the most fear I’ve ever felt on the road. But, as a parent? It might become more useful than I could imagine.

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When the first talk of autonomous cars came a few years back, I was nonplused. My happy place is in a double-bucket seat behind the wheel of something fast with nothing ahead on the road but corners. Driving is supposed to be fun. Why would I want to let the car have it all?

Fast forward to today. With two kids who seem to relish harassing the ever-loving shit out of me from the second I put the car in gear, I’ve started to dread driving. I feel like I’m constantly distracted whenever I’m behind the wheel. I want a cookie! Where’s my juice! I hate this song! My wee minions don’t realize their constant demands, requests, and screams wrestle my attention from the road, making the drive over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house all the more dangerous. Sure it’s a monstrous cliché, but fatherhood changes everything and you can’t even predict the ways your life will be altered by your brood. My joy behind the wheel has turned to ennui.

But in the Mercedes’ double bucket seat, I’m starting to embrace the car’s adaptive cruise control. Engaged, it keeps the E-Class a “safe” distance from the idiot ahead of me, while the radar and cameras keep the car in its lane with minimal input from my hands.

Most cars of the E-Class caliber offer a similarly futuristic cruise control. Mercedes-Benz calls theirs Distance Pilot DISTRONIC® and it’s not only able to automatically maintain the selected distance from the vehicle in front of you, but it can also follow the traffic ahead of you up to 130 mph. It’s probably the handiest option if you’re often on a road where you’re lucky to be going the legal limit.

Now, this isn’t hands-free driving. As Mercedes-Benz will tell you, even with the systems engaged, you are driving the car. Hence the semi-autonomous aspect. It’s not a perfect program. You will need to occasionally correct the computer’s instincts. (In one instance, my E Class tried to follow another car off the parkway into a left-lane service station exit.)

Thankfully, on my drive that summer night, traffic was lighter than I’d expected, so I felt a little at ease with the system. One of the things that became rapidly apparent is that my idea of where the center of the lane is off by 10 to 12 inches. As a human driver living in the USA, I sit on the left side of the car (most of the time) and it skews the perspective. The computer is using cameras and radar that are aligned to the car’s actual center, so while it feels like the car is farther to the right than it should be, it’s not.

Another sensory disconnect with the semi-autonomous system? As a driver, I’m anticipating curves in the road and adjusting ahead of time. The Distance Pilot doesn’t give you the impression it can see the turns ahead. Rather, it appears to react more immediately. As I couldn’t quite tell what the car was thinking, it was hard to let go of my back-seat driver instincts for the first half an hour or so. But as the miles wore on, my confidence in the assistance tools built to a point where I was seizing control less and less.

And, as my confidence grew, I decided these features are a game changer in my world. I declined all the similar features in my current daily driver, because, well, I’m an idiot. Some monastic dogma about maintaining the purity of the driving experience as well as my control issues clouded my judgment. Now, after a brief flirtation with the future, I can’t wait for my lease to be up. These features, along with a bevy of others, including Crosswind Assist, which helps keep the car from drifting in gusty conditions and Evasive Steering Assist, which helps the driver navigate dancers on the road and dodges other cars after swerving out of harm’s way, will make driving my family around a little easier — and, hopefully, a little safer. Also, for those rare occasions I find myself alone in the car on an empty road, there’s an off switch.

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