Mercedes becomes the first automaker to sell autonomous cars in the U.S.

The next time you’re traveling on the interstate and see a fellow driver whose hands are full with everything but the wheel—scrolling TikTok, applying mascara, eating breakfast—don’t panic. It’s all legal in certain states, as long as they’re in a new Mercedes with autonomous driving technology. 

The luxury automaker has become the first in the nation to start selling self-driving cars—at least those that afford riders a hands-free experience—to regular consumers. As of April 11, there were 65 Mercedes autonomous vehicles available for sale in California, Fortune has learned through an open records request submitted to the state’s DMV. One of those has since been sold, which marks the first sale of an autonomous Mercedes in California, according to the DMV. Mercedes would not confirm sales numbers. Select Mercedes dealerships in Nevada are also offering the cars with the new technology, known as “level 3” autonomous driving.

Level 3-enabled cars went on sale in December, Mercedes told Fortune. California and Nevada are the only two states where the company can legally sell the technology to consumers. The two state DMVs gave Mercedes approval to begin selling the cars last year—Nevada in January, and California in June. Mercedes announced in September its plans to begin sales, but this is the first news of the cars actually reaching consumers.

Drivers can activate Mercedes’s technology, called Drive Pilot, when certain conditions are met, including in heavy traffic jams, during the daytime, on specific California and Nevada freeways, and when the car is traveling less than 40 mph. Drivers can focus on other activities until the vehicle alerts them to resume control. The technology does not work on roads that haven’t been pre-approved by Mercedes, including on freeways in other states. 

The sales mark a new echelon of autonomous driving available to the average American. Mercedes is the first automaker selling to customers to achieve level 3 capabilities in the U.S., with Tesla and others still offering technology at level 2—in which cars can perform specific tasks but require constant supervision from a driver. Some drivers, however, ignore those rules and operate the cars as if they are more capable than they are. One family of a deceased driver has accused Tesla of hyping its assisted driving technology as fully autonomous, allegedly leading to tragic results, while California’s DMV last year accused the company of false advertising over the matter.

Meanwhile, robotaxis from Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise operate at level 4, meaning cars drive autonomously in most conditions without human interference. But these companies currently don’t sell vehicles to consumers, and Cruise recently halted its service after California’s DMV suspended its license due to an incident in which a car dragged a pedestrian under its carriage for 20 feet. 

U.S. customers can buy a yearly subscription of Drive Pilot in 2024 EQS sedans and S-Class car models for $2,500. Mercedes began selling level 3-enabled cars in its home country of Germany in May 2022. The European packages cost 5,000 to 7,000 euros ($5,300 and $7,500) for a three-year membership.

The cars sport turquoise lights on its rear-view mirrors, headlights, and taillights to let law enforcement and other drivers know when the car is operating autonomously. Drive Pilot is only available on select models that have the built-in hardware, including a sensor at the front of the car and a camera in the rear windshield.

Mercedes is also working on developing level 4 capabilities. The automaker’s chief technology officer Markus Schäfer expects that level 4 autonomous technology will be available to consumers by 2030, Automotive News reported. But the jump to level 4 is considerably more difficult than achieving level 3. While humans are still expected to take control of the car based on the circumstances in level 3, level 4 technology is supposed to offer near-total autonomy. At this level, a driver only needs to take over if the system fails. That means the technology must be able to safely respond to nearly all unexpected situations on the road.

Correction, April 19, 2024: A previous version of this article misstated the number of autonomous Mercedes cars sold in California. There were 65 cars available for sale at the time of the records request.

Update, April 19, 2024: This article has been updated with the information that one autonomous car has been sold in California.

Subscribe to the Eye on AI newsletter to stay abreast of how AI is shaping the future of business. Sign up for free.

Read More

Rachyl Jones