Mercedes' 2018 S-Class gets a huge semi-autonomous upgrade

Mercedes may not have a fully autonomous car in dealerships quite yet, but the automaker has announced an improvement in its driving-assist technologies that will debut on the 2018 S-Class Sedan. The new Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive promises smarter auto-navigation by relying on pre-existing mapping data, while new sensors should give the luxury four-door a better perspective on the world around it. Meanwhile, there are also changes to how the car's self-driving status is communicated to the person behind the wheel.

As the flagship of Mercedes' line-up, the S-Class has always led the game in the automaker's driving-assistance aids. For the 2018 model year, that includes a new version of all of the Intelligent Drive components, encompassing both hardware and software.

On the hardware side, there are new and enhanced cameras and radar systems. A stereo camera array facing the road ahead is used to spot traffic signs; if there's a change in the speed limit – such as during construction, for instance – the Traffic Sign Assist system can override the speed limits embedded in the navigation data and automatically adjust the car's speed to suit. Even if the driver themselves is in control, the system can sound an alert if the current limit is being exceeded.

Really, though, the reason for the S-Class' tech is to take the big sedan closer to fully autonomous motoring. Active Steering Assist has been "noticeably improved" Mercedes says, better able to keep the car within its lane, while Active Lane Change Assist can now shift the car from one lane to the next with a single tap of the indicator stalk while Intelligent Drive is active. Active Emergency Stop Assist can pull the car to a complete halt if the driver is deemed to have checked-out of their monitoring responsibilities.

It's been a good few months for increasingly capable semi-autonomous driving systems, albeit only for those with deep pockets. Tesla's Enhanced Autopilot has begun rolling out to so-called HW2 cars, the models with the upgraded suite of sensors and cameras that, so Elon Musk says, will one day make the car capable of fully-autonomous driving. Earlier the month, meanwhile, Cadillac announced that its delayed Super Cruise system would be hitting the 2018 CT6 later this year.

Super Cruise relies on custom LIDAR-based mapping of all of the controlled entry/exit highways in North America, with that super-precise navigation data allowing the CT6 to understand and adapt to upcoming turns and other road features. Mercedes' new Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC system on the new S-Class promises to use "substantially more" navigation and mapping data, the automaker says today. It's unclear whether Mercedes has done any extra work fleshing out the standard maps in order for that to take place.

As such systems become increasingly prevalent, one key area of concern is just how they communicate their status to the person behind the wheel. Some might argue that we're reaching the limits of what can be comprehensively explained by iconography, though Mercedes says its new "Assistance Graphics" section of its fully-digital instrumentation should satisfy even the most wary of buyers. Along with showing which of the systems are currently active, it promises to also explain what situations the car is responding to on the road.

Elsewhere, there are new twin 12.3-inch displays across the dashboard, 64 color adjustable LED lighting, and touch control buttons on the redesigned steering wheel that can be swiped for navigating menus, which we first saw on the latest E-Class. There's even an ENERGIZING Comfort system for the first time, which pulls together the climate control, seat heating/ventilation and massage, console heating, lighting, and even the cabin fragrancing. Users get the choice of six modes – freshness, warmth, vitality, joy, comfort, and training (muscle relaxation, muscle activation, and balance) – each of which runs for ten minutes complete with bpm-matched background music.

Madness? Perhaps, though as previous S-Class technologies have demonstrated, where the luxury sedan goes, future Mercedes-Benz models eventually follow. If that includes the upgraded 1,520 watt Burmester audio system – which gains an overhead speaker and two extra side speakers – then we won't complain.

The 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class goes on sale later this year. It's joined by new S450 and S450 4MATIC models, each using a 3.0-liter V6 biturbo good for 362 horsepower and 369 lb-ft. of torque, along with an updated 4.0-liter V8 with 463 HPO and 516 lb-ft. in the S560 and Mercedes-Maybach S560 4MATIC. A handcrafted-AMG version of the latter engine – tuned for 603 HP – finds its way under the hood of the Mercedes-AMG S65, too, smaller than the old engine but at the same time more powerful.