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Mercedes self-drives 100km

Legislation permitting, this scenario will be reality in Europe by 2020.

A Mercedes-Benz S500 has not so much made history as redefined it by "driving" 100km without a human hand on the wheel or foot on the pedals.

The German auto giant revealed on the eve of the Frankfurt motor show that its S500 Independent Drive has retraced the route of the first long distance auto journey made in 1885 by the wife of car pioneer Karl Benz with the means of eight computer guided cameras and multiple radar sensors.

Though a Benz employee was behind the wheel to satisfy the law, the 104km journey between the towns of Mannheim and Pforzheim  was made under autonomous power, the massive S-Class limo accelerating and slowing to the designated speed limit, stopping at red lights and zebra crossings then re-starting under its own cognition. The "driver" did not intervene.

The revelation was made by Daimler AG head of research Professor Thomas Weber who says that 53km of Bertha Benz's original journey now runs though busy towns and villages. The journey on which Frau Benz packed her two sons aboard the three-wheeler without her husband's knowledge for an epic day trip was the first long range drive, a journey regularly commemorated by alternative energy vehicles.

This, however, is the first time the drive has been made sans the human element. While autonomous driving is achievable by a growing number of cars in freeway conditions, Weber says this technology permits almost total "driver" disengagement from the tedium of commuting. The caveat, such as it is, takes the form of the S500 ID's inability to recognise pedestrians waving the car to proceed - which since this never happens is negligible. Even so, Weber says: "We will ensure the electronic driver learns to recognise sign language."

Legislation permitting, this scenario will be reality in Europe by 2020. What of the automotive third world? "By 2020? No," Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy says. "Technology isn't the challenge. We don't even have road signs that are speed-recognisable. The legal implications of autonomous driving are significant." What a pity, because such tech would surely be embraced by a driving population that thinks it acceptable to text while driving. Benz would at least save them from themselves and the rest of us too.