Tipping Point in Transit

One sunny morning a few weeks ago, I slipped into the inviting cockpit of a Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan, a ride equipped with massaging front seats, reclining back seats, a heads-up display worthy of a fighter jet and more speakers than a political convention. At $136,000, this was a car fit for a rap star or a European Union functionary, of which I am neither (yet).

Instead, I write about the future, and embedded in the S550 are a host of technologies that roughly approximate the future of automobile transportation — already available, for a high price, on the road today.

A look at how technology is changing how we get around

For decades, pundits and theorists have been expecting a future in which cars drive themselves, and companies like Google have been testing advanced versions of these systems for several years.

But the S550 — some of whose self-driving features can be found in other luxury automobiles, including Cadillacs, Volvos and soon the Tesla Model S — shows that in many ways, the future of transportation is already here, and it is evolving at a pace that would surprise even the most optimistic enthusiasts.

And today’s semiautonomous road car isn’t the only sign that transportation is changing quickly. Because of on-demand services like Uber, the very idea of owning a car is being undermined.

Observers say that advances in transportation may be especially apparent in cities, where technology is creating an emerging multitude of options, from app-powered car sharing and car-pooling to new modes of driving and parking to novel forms of short-distance travel and private jitney buses with seats allocated by phone.

Communication systems and sensors installed in streets and cars are creating the possibility of intelligent roads, while newer energy systems like solar power are altering the environmental costs of getting around. Technology is also creating new transportation options for short distances, like energy-efficient electric-powered bikes and scooters, or motorcycles that can’t tip over.

“Cars and transportation will change more in the next 20 years than they’ve changed in the last 75 years,” said M. Bart Herring, the head of product management at Mercedes-Benz USA. “What we were doing 10 years ago wasn’t that much different from what we were doing 50 years ago. The cars got more comfortable, but for the most part we were putting gas in the cars and going where we wanted to go. What’s going to happen in the next 20 years is the equivalent of the moon landing.”

Mr. Herring is one of many in the industry who say that we are on the verge of a tipping point in transportation. Soon, getting around may be cheaper and more convenient than it is today, and possibly safer and more environmentally friendly, too.

But the transportation system of the near future may also be more legally complex and, given the increasing use of private systems to get around, more socially unequal. And, as in much of the rest of the tech industry, the moves toward tomorrow’s transportation system may be occurring more rapidly than regulators and social norms can adjust to them.

“All the things that we think will happen tomorrow, like fully autonomous cars, may take a very long time,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies emerging transportation systems. “But it’s the things we don’t even expect that will happen really fast.”

A step toward that future is something that Mercedes calls, clunkily, Distronic Plus with Steering Assist, a kind of advanced cruise control that lets a vehicle basically drive itself on freeways. Using radar and cameras, the S550 can center itself within a lane, remain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and automatically brake and steer to keep pace with traffic.

But that didn’t mean that I could exactly doze off on the road. The self-driving system, for example, can’t handle sharp turns. Both the car and the company warned me not to see the car’s abilities as permission to distract myself, which is a bit like warning the fox to exercise some self-control around that newfangled self-guarding henhouse. The Mercedes issues an alarm when you’ve taken your hands off the wheel for more than 10 seconds.

Still, the car lulled me: With the S550 making most major decisions, I could safely look at incoming Twitter messages while jammed in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The car even promises to respond to emergency situations, like if it senses that you’re veering off the road into the median, or if the vehicle ahead of you suddenly jams on the brakes.

Thankfully, I didn’t get a chance to test those features.

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