Mercedes-Benz F 015 San Francisco 3

Alright, so the usual kicker lead-off for our reviews isn’t apt in this particular case, but let’s just play along with it for the sake of continuity – it is a review proper, even though there was no driving involved, and not because we didn’t want to.

Today’s topic is about fully autonomous driving, the experience sampled through Mercedes-Benz’s futuristic-looking F 015 Luxury In Motion concept vehicle. The driverless aspect tech itself has been showcased heavily through more conventional means, via the S 500 Intelligent Drive, but this one takes it a step further afield.

The main plug here is about the next level in autonomous driving, as in how such applications could well shape up, both technologically and conceptually. Someday in the distant future, this will be what we can expect to find on roads – vehicles that are driverless affairs, with oodles of space to lounge in, providing an immersive, relaxing ride ahead to one’s destination. Or so that’s the thought at least. How does the future look then?

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It’s more visually arresting in the metal than photographs suggest, and to say the car wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi movie would be calling it right. A vision of the future it may be, but it’s one filled with plenty of imagination, a lot of it vivid and larger-than-life.

It’s massive too. At 5,220 mm long (2,018 mm wide and 1,524 mm tall), it’s a very long car, and its 3,610 mm wheelbase – which is 245 mm longer than that of the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class – is a real stretch. If this is what the future holds, be prepared for leviathans on the roads.

Plenty of tech in that body though – there’s a mix of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), aluminium and high-strength steels in that bodyshell, which is 40% lighter than current production vehicles.

The car communicates with its surroundings both visually and acoustically – large LED displays front and rear handle the primary part of the visual aspect. How this light array colours up also indicate the car’s driving mode – blue signals that the car is running on autonomous mode, while white indicates that it is being manually driven.

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There’s also a front-facing laser projection system – housed within the tristar on the front grille – that can project useful imagery onto the road ahead, such as signifying the car’s intended direction at a junction or displaying a virtual zebra crossing for pedestrians. Acoustic communication, meanwhile, includes both sounds and specific voice prompts.

The F 015 features suicide doors that open to 90 degrees, offering a massive port for ingress/egress out of the cabin, and there are no B-pillars to hinder access – Merc says that despite the omission of the latter, the doors themselves aid in structural integrity. The doors are equipped with a connecting system with mechanically interlocking elements, which securely interlock the front and rear doors when closed while also fixing them firmly to the roof frame and sills.

The resulting composite load path provides extremely high energy absorption in the event of a frontal or side impact, with minimal intrusion into the passenger compartment, according to the automaker. In more practical terms, real-world applications down the line wouldn’t be able to eschew that pillar for structural safety purposes (as well as from a production cost perspective), but here, as a concept displaying space in a car, the “window” offers impressive scope and feel.

Because it is all about space, or attempting what the automaker terms a “private retreating space,” the focus of this car is of course with its interior. The lounge-like cabin features four individual seats (front ones rotatable to face rearward, and all swivel outward to offer easy-entry into them), each finished in ice white nappa leather – these allow occupants to face each other when the car is running in autonomous mode.

There’s a variety of light-coloured surfaces and material textures to be found throughout the cabin, the mix containing reflective metal, glass, Plexiglass as well as open-pore walnut wood veneers – the choice of going white (the steering, lower dashboard and seatbelts are also finished in the shade) and light is naturally to improve the perception and sense of space, as Holger Hutzenlaub, head of Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Germany, explained.

A quick aside on something that was noticed on the steering wheel as well as one of the sketches on show on the wall display at the presentation, and these had to do with the words “REC 14.” Asked about this, Hutzenlaub said that the term translates to Research Car 14, the latter to signify the year of debut – the car was originally supposed to have made its debut in Frankfurt last year, but the automaker decided to showcase it at the CES earlier this year, deciding the latter to be a more apt location.

In place of the panel cutouts of the four doors are large ultra-clear HD screens, which allow access to a multitude of operational aspects of the car as well as information out of the car through gestures and touch. They’re impressive to sight, and operation is a straightforward affair.

Route planning, vehicle speed adjustment, music selection, images, contacts and many other functions can be displayed and worked on the screens along the sides. There’s also a small panel at the rear. Incidentally, unless you insist on having manual control within reach, you can sit in any location and control the car to drive autonomously.

The front display panel is of a different nature – currently, due to the sweep of the screen and how it runs across the entire dashboard, the display image is presented through a five projector-system firing behind the panel. Operation is via gestures and eye movement – gesture activation is smooth and the eye-tracking sensors work well enough, even with glasses on, though I did find the frame of field capture rather limited.

The F 015 is driven by the automaker’s F-Cell Plug-In Hybrid system, consisting of an electric drivetrain powered by either hydrogen (stored in pressurised carbon-fibre tanks) or a battery. A pair of 136 hp and 200 Nm electric motors send 272 hp to the rear wheels, and performance specs for the study include an operating range of 1,100 km (including 200 km on the battery alone), a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6.7 seconds and a 200 km/h top speed.

Prior to the first media rides, the F 015 made its rounds in San Francisco, where it delighted throngs of onlookers – shaped as it is, there was no way it wasn’t going to stand out and capture such attention. The press evaluations, however, were carried out in a more controlled environment, with one of the runways at the former Naval Air Station Alameda providing the necessary closed-course for trials.

By the time we’d arrived for our part of the programme, it was already more than midway through the showcase’s schedule, and the F 015 was starting to show signs of wear – the study was meant to be a working sample, but in truth was never envisaged to do heavy duty work, or in this case, repeated runs displaying the tech to journos.

One of the rear doors had by this time started to get wonky, refusing to open from the inside, and surfaces were showing the worse for wear, noticeably in many contact areas – there’s a reason why production vehicle seat-belt receivers aren’t in finished in white; the finish around the receptacles were starting to flake off.

Maybe it was just me, but the front passenger seatbelt refused to retract back to its guide stop, and I even managed to unstrip part of the carpet from the aluminium surrounds with my shoe, which I quietly shoved back in place without too much fuss.

The F 015 is also bit of a primadonna in other areas – apparently, it doesn’t react very well to heat and rain. Even with the 14 degree weather of San Francisco, the electronics couldn’t be out in the sun too long (well, you can definitely forget about it ever being showcased here then!), the car retreating to the shade in between runs. As for rain, well, the concept isn’t like sealed like a regular vehicle, so water can get into places that water isn’t definitely welcome. Luckily, the weather held up during our run.

Light-wearing materials and iffy operation aside, many aspects of the F 015’s cabin shone through quite nicely. The level of space between occupants is good, and there’s plenty of novelty in being able to face each other. Rotating the front seats between the two forward sitting occupants takes some patience (it’s not wide enough that both can simply go at it together at the same time. There are these things called legs…), but once facing rearward, the cabin becomes quite the place.

Elsewhere, the ride is decent enough while coasting along, but not what you’d call immensely refined. Again, it’s worth remembering that this is a concept, and so ride comfort in actual use isn’t the prime consideration – the illustration of space within a fully-autonomous framework is.

Having said that, the F 015 coasts along comfortably at 50 km/h, though the descriptive term would not be plush. There’s a noticeable hardness coming off the massive 26-inch wheels, wrapped with specially-made Pirelli rubbers (195/40 front, 225/35 rear), of which there are only two sets of in the world made for Merc by the Italian tyre maker.

The wheel/rubber combo may be a tech accomplishment and a marvel to look at, but cushy it’s not, translating a lot of the bumps and surface information coming off NAS Alameda’s former runway into the car. Still, I think very few at the presentation would have actually taken notice of the ride aspect, wowed by that interior and its workings.

At one point, I decide to up the pace of the car via the speed controller on the rear door’s screen panel, and things pick up immediately, the response being particularly impressive, though along with faster propulsion also comes increased harshness, both from ride and powertrain. After about 10 seconds, I decide that’s as fast as I want to go today, and trim it back to the midway point on the line.

It’s at this stage I wonder how harrowing it might be going really fast in this one, with nothing but faith – in the tech and that higher up above – to hold on to. “It’ll do 200 km/h,” showcar interior man Thomas Jager – who is riding with us and giving us the working overview – reiterates the spec sheet numbers rather enthusiastically. I’ll take your word on that one, Herr Jager.

Before you know it, the ride is over, and it certainly has been an experience. There’s plenty to admire in how the space in the F 015 is presented, and the autonomous part worked well enough despite there being enough space to land a plane and very few challenges to traverse through in the closed-course.

As a driverless and space showcase, it works beautifully, and you can see where it’s slowly shaping up towards, or at least where a company like Merc wants to head to eventually. I can think of a number of places in Asia where autonomous driving will face insurmountable challenges (imagine something like an F 015 trying to merge into a traffic jam here or Jakarta – it’d take hours, or never!) and simply not get off the ground, but there will be enough places where such innovation will work eventually – Europe and the US, primarily.

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Of course, the topic and the very idea itself will sound like an absolute bane to some; I can just see driving enthusiasts groaning and shaking their heads in dismay – isn’t driving all about driving? After all, if you want to be taxied around, one simply uses a taxicab.

Well, yes, I suppose, but the idea isn’t about taking the ability to drive away from you (well, at least not anytime in the foreseeable future), but to augment freedom from the mundane task of actually having to drive during those humdrum moments such as monotonous highway travel and in traffic jams.

That you can do so in a “private retreating space” and gain back lost time is what this one is attempting to highlight. Of course, the current answer to that (in these here parts) is far less complex – have an S-Class and get a driver, and it works just as well. Now, if one could only get the flash and lounge-like levels of space…