German automaker Mercedes-Benz claims to have achieved Level 3 autonomy — "conditionally automated" vehicles that can monitor their driving environment and make informed decisions on behalf of the driver, but still require humans to occasionally take over — in the United States, an incremental but noteworthy step towards a future void of steering wheels and foot pedals.
"It is a very proud moment for everyone to continue this leadership and celebrate this monumental achievement as the first automotive company to be certified for Level 3 conditionally automated driving in the US market," said Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dimitris Psillakis in a statement.
Last year, Mercedes showed off the new feature, a part of its Drive Pilot system, suggesting drivers could play a game of Tetris while they bomb down the highway — but the technology still comes with plenty of caveats in 2023.
The company's Level 3 autonomy-capable software was recently approved for use in Nevada, but only up to speeds of 40 mph.
Mercedes is trying to position itself as the pioneer in the autonomous driving space, which has been dominated by the likes of Tesla, General Motors, and Ford.
For those keeping count, Level 3 is one level above Tesla, which has only achieved Level 2 autonomy with its Autopilot driver assistance software suite — despite Musk's empty promises of bringing fully self-driving vehicles to the roadways.
Level 3 is still a far cry from the kind of robust self-driving feature featured in sci-fi, and in many ways remains very similar to Level 2 systems currently being used on the road. It can keep the car in the lane, adjust speed depending on the vehicle in front of it, and even make lane changes.
But there's one notable exception: drivers don't strictly have to keep their eyes on the road at all times, which could free them up to read articles or play video games on the infotainment screen.
Not everybody agrees that Level 3 is a sensible step forward. As The Verge reports, the likes of Waymo and Cruise have argued that jumping to Level 4 technology — systems that could allow a driver to take a nap — from Level 2 makes a lot more sense as the handoff between humans and their software-based assistants can be imperfect or even prove fatal.
There are a lot more carmakers gunning to bring Level 3 autonomy to US roads. Ford, Audi, BMW, and Volvo, all have claimed to already be working on similar technologies.
But whether it's a step in the right direction — or even more of a distraction for drivers on the road — remains to be seen.
READ MORE: Mercedes-Benz is the first to bring Level 3 automated driving to the US [The Verge]
More on self-driving: Godfather of Self-Driving Cars Says the Tech Is Going Nowhere