Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot automated driver-assist feature has been approved for use in California, making it the first hands-off, eyes-off system available to the public in the state.

Drive Pilot was approved by Nevada at the start of the year, and more states are likely to approve the system in the months and years ahead. It was first launched in Mercedes' home market of Germany in 2022.

Drive Pilot, which ranks at Level 3 on the SAE scale of self-driving capability, is designed to function in dense traffic on pre-mapped stretches of highway but only at speeds of up to 40 mph. Mercedes wants to increase the speed in which the system functions to 80 mph, eventually.

A Level 3 car allows for hands-off, eyes-off operation in certain situations, but is still far short of true autonomous driving as the driver still needs to be ready to take back control at any time, after being prompted with a warning. Level 4 is the first level where a car can handle itself for extended periods without intervention from a driver. All other systems currently available for public purchase rank at Level 2, as they require constant monitoring from the driver.

Mercedes-Benz EQS - sensors used by Drive Pilot

Mercedes-Benz EQS - sensors used by Drive Pilot

Drive Pilot relies on multiple sensors around the car, including lidar, and is engaged by buttons on the steering wheel. These buttons light up when the car encounters conditions where the system is available for use. If the driver fails to take control once the required conditions are no longer met, the system will slow the car to a stop, turn on the hazard lights, unlock the doors, and activate its emergency call system.

Volvo is developing a similar system known as Ride Pilot, which the automaker wants to launch in California first before expanding it to other markets. Volvo hasn't said in what conditions Ride Pilot will function.

Honda has been offering a Level 3 system for highways in Japan since 2021, though the system is severely limited in the conditions in which it will function, particularly its speed band.

The first cars to feature Drive Pilot in the U.S. will be the 2024 S-Class sedan and 2024 EQS electric hatch, which will be available from the third quarter of the year.