Blue lights indicate when Mercedes’ autonomous driving system is engaged

Mercedes-Benz has secured permission to add turquoise lights to the exterior of its self-driving cars to show others that an autonomous driving system is controlling the vehicle.

“With the development of automated marker lights, Mercedes-Benz is once again setting new industry standards,” said Markus Schaefer, Mercedes-Benz CTO. “We are the first car manufacturer in the world to receive such approvals in the US.”

Background: The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) classifies cars’ autonomous driving capabilities into six levels, ranging from Level 0 (a car with no autonomous capabilities) to Level 5 (a car that can be fully autonomous in all driving conditions).

In January 2023, Mercedes-Benz became the first automaker to get a Level 3 autonomous driving system approved for use anywhere in the US. At this level, the car drives itself under certain conditions, and while the driver must be ready to take control of the car, he does not need to keep his eyes on the road at all times.

The challenge: While this autonomous driving system, called Drive Pilot, can make driving less stressful for Benz owners, it can reason stress for other drivers – from their point of view it may appear that someone is distracted when they should be paying attention to the road.

The same goes for police officers – they have no way of knowing that the driver they see playing on their phone or knitting a sweater while behind the wheel is legally (and safely) able to do so.

More generally, ensuring that autonomous vehicles and the expectations of other drivers are on the same page will be key to ensuring that they understand each other as they share the same roads.

What’s new? Regulators in Nevada and California — the states where Drive Pilot is currently approved — have already given Mercedes-Benz permission to equip its vehicles with special turquoise marker lights that notify others when the autonomous driving system is engaged.

“The inclusion of marker lights is poised to significantly improve public acceptance of automated driving and contribute to road safety, as the lights clearly visualize the status of the automated driving system from the outside,” Mercedes-Benz wrote.

“The more automated vehicles populate the road, the more important the communication and interaction between the vehicle and the environment becomes.”

Mark Schaefer

In California, the company received permission to integrate turquoise lights into the exterior mirrors and front and rear lights of test vehicles – a permit that expires in two years.

Meanwhile, Nevada is allowed to integrate the lights into its cars built in 2026. That permission will expire if/when the state enacts new laws dictating how carmakers must indicate that an autonomous driving system is on.

Look forward: Currently, Mercedes-Benz owners are only allowed to use Drive Pilot during the day on certain highways in California and Nevada when the car is traveling below 40 mph in heavy traffic — essentially automating highway congestion.

However, the company plans to continue expanding where and how its autonomous driving system can be used in the future, and adding turquoise lights to its vehicles could help ensure that expansion goes smoothly.

“The more automated vehicles populate the road, the more important the communication and interaction between the vehicle and the environment becomes,” Schaefer said.

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