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Mercedes beats Tesla to hands-free driving on highways

Decision paves the way for the automaker to offer the Level 3 system globally

Daimler's Mercedes-Benz won regulatory approval to deploy a hands-free driving system in Germany ahead of Tesla, gaining an edge in the race to offer higher levels of automation in one of the world’s most competitive car markets.

The automaker got the go-ahead to sell its Drive Pilot package for use on stretches of the country’s Autobahn network at a speed of up to 60 kph (37 mph).

The system was approved for Level 3 autonomous driving, a notch higher than Tesla's Level 2 Autopilot system, and will allow a drivers to take their hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic.

"Drive Pilot enables the driver to turn away from the traffic and focus on certain secondary activities," Mercedes said in a statement on Thursday.

"For example, to communicate with colleagues via the in-car office, to write emails, to surf the Internet or to relax and watch a film," the statement said.

Tesla, Alphabet's Waymo and others have been chasing self-driving technology for years.

A fully autonomous vehicle would be highly attractive to premium customers, allowing drivers to work or use entertainment systems while on journeys.

Mercedes got permission for the system only in Germany, but said it is aiming for regulatory approval in other jurisdictions as well.

As soon as legislation in China and the United States is in place, Mercedes-Benz will offer the system in those markets, said Markus Schaefer, Daimler chief technology officer.

Drive Pilot will be an option for the S-Class and EQS models from around the middle of next year.

The automaker has not decided how much it will charge for the system, which has approval to be used on around 13,000 km of Germany’s highway network.

Tesla has run into trouble in Germany with its driver-assistance technology after a German court rebuffed the company’s promotion of Autopilot last year, saying the automaker has misled consumers about what the system can do.

CEO Elon Musk has long offered optimistic views on the capabilities of his cars, even going so far as to start charging customers thousands of dollars for a "Full Self Driving" feature in 2016. Years later, Tesla still requires users of its Autopilot system to be fully attentive and ready to take over driving at any time.

Mercedes is not the first automaker to market Level 3 technology in a production car. Honda Motor in 2020 received approval from Japanese regulators for such a system in its Legend model, although only deployed it in a limited production run.

Germany's KBA authority approved the system based on technical requirements laid out in United Nations regulations.

"The KBA is setting national, European and international standards in road safety on the road to autonomous driving," said the authority's president, Richard Damm.

Beyond the U.N. regulation on technical requirements, countries also have to pass legislation clarifying where and how such systems can be used, as well as issues of liability.

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