The new E-Class will offer autonomous driving at highway speeds

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Whether you like it or not, it’s happening: self driving cars are but a step away and one of the first to offer a fully functional completely autonomous highway cruising option will be the new E-Class from Mercedes-Benz.

The executive sedan – one of the main pillars of the Mercedes-Benz range, if not the most important – is set to go on sale at the end of the first quarter next year when it will battle with the established models of this segment: the BMW 5 Series, the Audi A6 and, in smaller part, the Lexus GS.

But besides what we expect to be a stunning exterior and an even more attractive interior, the new E-Class has another ace up its sleeve, as recent reports suggest: it will be the first car to feature autonomous driving at highway speeds.

Since the 1998 Mercedes-Benz S-Class adopted the first cruise control system with the ability of maintaining a minimum distance from the car in front (a precursor of the current DISTRONIC system), things have evolved rapidly and Mercedes-Benz was heavily involved.

“Innovations in this area are coming thick and fast,” said Thomas Weber, Daimler’s head of development. “While we don’t want to feed wrong expectations such as sleeping in the car, autonomous driving is set to become a reality much more quickly than the public thinks.”

At the moment, it is a case of bending the rules. The main thing standing in the way of autonomous driving is the current legislation which has no idea how to deal with the advent of the self driving car. But with this crazy pace of technical breakthroughs, it will have to catch up quick and come up with a solution because driverless cars are happening and they’re happening fast.

Back to the E-Class, the people at Automotive News say they went out for a ride in a car equipped with the same technology the new E-Class will have. The only hesitations came due to tree shadows and temporary signs near construction sites, but other than that it managed to keep the middle of the lane through bends with ease and adapt its speed according to the enforced speed limits. The top speed registered was 130 km/h and mister Weber said that, although technically possible, negotiating sharper corners is not yet part of the system’s repertoire.

Due to legal reasons, the driver has to keep his hands on the wheel for the system to work. If he takes them off for more than a few seconds, he’s first reminded to grab the steering wheel by means of a warning light and acoustic beeps, and if he doesn’t comply, the system is automatically switched off.

This means you won’t be able to relax completely and forget about driving just yet – or you will, as long as you keep your hands on the wheel. But these aiding systems do more than to simply offer o more casual cruising experience – they also help prevent collisions.

But what happens when they can’t and there’s a crash? Who will the law blame if two autonomous cars are involved? Or if only one of them is autonomous – will then the human driver be at fault by default? And then there’s the more sinister question that remains to be answered: in case of an unavoidable crash, how will the car decide what to do? Will it hit the car on the right, the car on the left or simply smash into the tree on the side of the road and seal the fate of its occupants?

The roads would undoubtedly be a safer place with autonomous cars, yet it seems we’re gonna have to settle with semi-autonomous highway cruising for now. Which is alright, since driving on the highway is the most boring part anyway.