Just outside the Cosmopolitan hotel, where beads of shimmering glass stretch for several stories over blackjack gamblers and women nonchalantly dance bar-top, hundreds of tourists and journalists gathered late Monday night to gawk at a sleek, gunmetal-silver car floating its way down the Las Vegas Strip.
But when it opened, no driver stepped out. The car had been driving itself.
Dubbed the Mercedes-Benz F015 Luxury in Motion, this automobile is fully autonomous and produces no carbon emissions whatsoever, said Dieter Zetsch, head of the German company. It is powered by a battery and a fuel cell that produces electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen to create water.
When these two gases combine, they release energy that can be harnessed. Challenges in the past have involved safely storing hydrogen, which is combustible, especially under pressure. But this car houses the gas in super-strong cylinders placed between the wheels, where they are unlikely to be damaged even in a bad accident, said Ralf Herrtwich, a senior engineer with the company.
The automobile looks like something out of The Jetsons—if the Jetsons could afford a Benzo and had more earthbound tastes—and features four swiveling chairs that allow people in the car to face each other. Or, perhaps, spin in circles while playing Angry Birds.
The idea is to let driver and passengers interact during a ride, Herrtwich said.
Google has created several cars, such as modified versions of the Toyota Prius, that can drive themselves. So a self-driving car is not new. But it’s safe to say that this is the most premium and fully realized autonomous automobile yet to see the light of day.
“We are the first ones to show how the interior of a car is [ideally] modified in autonomous driving,” Herrtwich said.
To this end, he explained, the car is built using a “carriage” concept, with the wheels put as far as possible toward the edges of the vehicle to allow space in the center for a driver and passengers. And its interior features gleaming panels that can project a front-facing view of the car as it trundles along (or what would be seen out the windshield), meant to prevent the backward-facing driver from getting carsick, Herrtwich noted.
Several displays toward the front let the driver see where the car is going (and how fast) and allows drivers to text or make calls, surf the Web or look for restaurant recommendations, he said.
“Most gadgets take up your time,” Zetsch said. “But autonomous cars like this one will become mobile homes, in the best sense of the word,” giving drivers the time and wherewithal do whatever they want while they get to their destination.
But don’t expect it anytime soon. Herrtwich said the company anticipates the car could be available to the public around 2030. Something similar may be available sooner but may be too expensive for most consumers, he added.
The car can travel about 200 kilometers (125 miles) on the power of its batteries, which are charged by being plugged in. Once these are spent, the hydrogen fuel cell is activated, which can provide power to drive another 900 km (550 miles), Herrtwich said.
The car recognizes its surroundings with a series of cameras and radar sensors, and is much better than humans at avoiding accidents, Herrtwich said.
Other cool features include a grill that glows blue when the car is in autonomous mode but is white when manually driven—and yes, it still includes a steering wheel and allows drivers to…drive, if they choose. (Maybe by 2030 there will be another word for the person helming the non-steering controls of a self-driving car.) This LED-studded grill also glows a darker shade of blue when it senses a pedestrian. The car can then project an image of a crosswalk in front of it, to signal to a person that it is safe to cross the road.