2030 Mercedes-Benz F015 review

Forget KITT and the Doc’s time machine DeLorean, the Mercedes F015 concept takes futuristic travel to the next (scary) hands-off level.

Mercedes-Benz’s glimpse into the driverless world of 2030. While the F015 concept has electric motors, a steering system and interior displays and controls, it lacks the sensors that would be required for full autonomy. It’s more about showing the interior possibilities in a time when having someone in the driver’s seat is optional.

It’s the future Jim (apparently).

We’ll get back to you in 20 years…

Get ready for a brave new world – if the F015 is close to what it ends up being. As one Benz engineer points out, we’ll be up to iPhone 20-something by the time anything like this gets remotely close to dealerships. So don’t stress it for now.

PLUS: Legal texting; radical control systems; endless possibilities in the cabin
MINUS: Not much of a driver’s car; long waiting time until it arrives

I’M NOT a fan of drivers taking their eyes off the road. So there is something NQR about having the driver facing me as I sit in the back seat of a car quickly building pace.

An electric surge gently squeezes me back in my seat as we build up to 60km/h down the concrete expanses of a disused naval base on the edge of San Francisco Bay.

None of this should have been a surprise. I knew I was getting into a driverless car – the radically futuristic F015 even arrived remotely after a few taps on a smartphone app – and I knew a computer would be calling the shots.

But it didn’t stop me from having a cursory glance (or two) at the flimsy wire fencing that was the only thing between us and an unplanned swim in the Bay.

Here at Wheels it’s not often we travel halfway around the world not to drive a car. But that’s what the F015 is all about. It’s imagining a world where a steering wheel and pedals are optional. Where bringing the lounge room or office in the car is a reality. And where so much of what we know of driving – parking stations, taxis and speeding fines – will change radically or disappear.

The F015 doesn’t have the myriad sensors and cameras still undergoing evaluation in Benz’s twin S-Class development vehicles.

While those vehicles continue to grind their way through billions of driving scenarios on real roads in Europe and America, the F015 is about stealing some headlines and showing what could be possible in an era where humans are merely the cargo.

For our short stint, the course is meticulously programmed using GPS coordinates. There’s a team watching carefully from a temporary garage, which doubles as the charging room for the electric motors. They’re ready to hit the remote kill switch should the F015 develop the ability to think.

We’re told to be careful with the car. It’s a concept, after all, so it’s hand-built and not to the quality and durability standards of a Mercedes production car. A section of the carpet is already threatening to pop out of the wooden floor, while the plastics creak and groan.

For an electric car, it’s noisy. Fans whir constantly to keep the electronics at the right temperature.

Short of Daniel Ricciardo’s pit crew for his RB11, I can’t think of many cars with this many minders, but the F015 does what it was claimed to when unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year – goes, stops and steers without human intervention.

Riding on sexy 26-inch tyres, it jolts into tiny concrete joins. But, hey, it was never going to pamper.

Despite a world moving increasingly towards computer control of our cars, Mercedes-Benz says it has no plans to drop traditional human controls – at least for decades to come.

The F015 features a retractable steering wheel (yes, it works!) and two pedals, something Mercedes envisages for future driverless transport, allowing the driver to relinquish control in many situations (predominantly city traffic and freeway driving) but regain it when they want.

Save for the optional steering wheel and pedals – we’re told not to touch the pedals, a command I’m happy to comply with – the only controls we have in the cabin are on each of the doors in the form of giant tablet-like touchscreens. It’s predominantly for infotainment functions such as phone, internet and destination information.

But those screens – along with a thin screen across the expanse of the dash and another where the rear window would be – also allow images of other landscapes to be projected on them; it’s tricky stuff, but nothing like the real thing.

But there’s one mode that allows us to slide between Comfort and Dynamic. One flick of a virtual switch and the car accelerates faster. It brings a new meaning to throttle response.

And had me having one more look at exactly where we were on that giant concrete expanse.

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