Catching a glimpse of blue lights in your rearview mirror is usually a sure sign you’re about to have a run in with the law. But if those lights are turquoise and affixed to a Mercedes-Benz they mean something else entirely.
On Tuesday, the German automaker announced it had won approval for turquoise lighting elements on cars equipped with its Drive Pilot automated driving system in California and Nevada. The thinking goes like this: A Mercedes running Drive Pilot is the closest thing you can buy to a “self-driving” car in the U.S. (with some major caveats we’ll discuss in a moment), and the company thinks other road users ought to know what they’re dealing with.
As peoples’ cars become increasingly automated—and as the industry trends toward fully autonomous vehicles—we’re likely going to see more efforts to make vehicles communicate with pedestrians and other drivers.
In California, Mercedes is now able to test turquoise lights on its cars. In Nevada, it’s allowed to sell production vehicles with turquoise lighting starting with the 2026 model year. Why those two states? That’s where Mercedes got approval to roll out Drive Pilot to customers of its electric EQS and S-Class sedans. The first vehicles are on the road now.
Now, back to Drive Pilot and what it does. It’s important to put a fine point on this, because it represents a sea-change in the kind of self-driving technology available to consumers.
Drive Pilot is the first hands-off, eyes-off driver-assistance system you can buy in the US. In practice, that means that under the right circumstances—on an approved highway, in traffic, at speeds below 40 mph and in clear weather—drivers can engage Drive Pilot and leave the drudgery of driving to their vehicle. The car will steer to stay in its lane, brake and accelerate to match traffic, and keep an eye on surrounding vehicles using an array of cameras and sensors.
It’s basically like a super-duper cruise-control system that can take over in heavy traffic. That’s the idea, anyway.
Several car companies offer hands-off, eyes-on systems that assist with highway driving in a similar fashion. The difference is that drivers must look straight ahead and keep an eye on things when using General Motors’ Super Cruise, Ford’s BlueCruise or the like. Mercedes is alone in encouraging drivers to read a magazine or play a game in their car’s touchscreen when Drive Pilot is active. (They can’t fall asleep, though, because they need to be able to take over driving within 10 seconds if the system asks.)
Per auto industry standards on driving automation, Drive Pilot is known as a Level 3 technology. The rest of the industry in the US is still on Level 2. Yes, even Tesla, despite Elon Musk’s bold promises and the company’s poorly named “Full Self-Driving” feature.
Mercedes says that switching on turquoise lighting when Drive Pilot is engaged will boost public acceptance of automated driving, improve road safety, and help law enforcement determine whether drivers are “permitted to engage in secondary activities.” What drivers are able to do during Level 3 driving is still a legal gray area. While Drive Pilot won’t stop you from looking at your phone, that’s illegal in most states.
Mercedes is trying to set a new standard here for companies around the world working on highly automated driving features. And this likely isn’t the last we’ll see of this sort of technology.
One of the big challenges in developing autonomous vehicles (that’s not what Mercedes is doing here, but it’s related) is the manner in which they interact with pedestrians and human drivers. Just think about how much of safely navigating streets as a driver, biker, or walker comes down to subtle eye contact, waves, and head nods. Robotaxis can’t do any of that, but researchers and self-driving startups are exploring solutions.
Earlier this year, the robotaxi company Waymo introduced new messages to the dome-shaped screens on its vehicles’ roofs. When a Waymo car is yielding to pedestrians, its dome now displays iconography meant to explain to both people in front of it and cars behind it what’s going on.