Even though many manufacturers are rushing to develop and provide fully autonomous driving, meaning the driver can take hands off wheel and eyes off road, most are not quite there and Mercedes-Benz is the first automaker to be allowed to legally build and sell such a vehicle. This currently only applies to the German market and it will only stay autonomous at speeds of up to 60 km/h (37.2 mph).

Markus Schäfer, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG, explains how the manufacturer achieved this

For many years, we have been working to realise our vision of automated driving. With this LiDAR based system, we have developed an innovative technology for our vehicles that offers customers a unique, luxurious driving experience and gives them what matters most: time. With the approval of the authorities, we have now achieved a breakthrough: We are the first manufacturer to put conditionally automated driving into series production in Germany.

With this milestone, we are once again proving our pioneering work in automated driving and also initiating a radical paradigm shift. For the first time in 136 years of automotive history, the vehicle takes over the dynamic driving task under certain conditions. At the same time, we are pleased that Germany is continuing its pioneering role in automated driving with this approval.

It still has plenty of limitations, though, aside from the aforementioned speed limit. Mercedes points out that Drive Pilot, its proprietary name for the self-driving system, can only drive on 13,191 km (8,196 miles) of German autobahn. We are told that the Three Pointed Star wants to expand availability of the feature to China or the United States, but it did not provide a time frame for when that will happen.

Gallery: Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot Level 3

The roads on which the system works have been previously mapped out by Mercedes, so the manufacturer’s approach to autonomous driving is quite different to, say, Tesla’s. Drive Pilot relies on LiDAR sensors, cameras, outside microphones (to hear approaching emergency vehicles), advanced positioning system (much more advanced and accurate than regular GPS) and vehicles equipped with it will also get a redundant electrical system that will keep steering and brakes functional in case any of the primary systems fail.

And if you were wondering what the difference between Level 2 (partial automation) and Level 3 (conditional automation) autonomous driving is, well, here’s how they are similar first: for both levels a driver is still needed to take control, although for Level 3 the driver won’t be prompted to take control after a given interval when he or she has not touched the steering wheel - this is the first time ever when a carmaker says you don’t have to pay attention to the road.

Level 3 self-driving vehicles are also able to react to their environment and make decisions on the fly in situations in which a Level 2 vehicle would urge the driver to take control.  Audi’s new A8, which debuted in 2019, was supposed to be the first Level 3-capable vehicle, but it seems Mercedes has now taken the lead in this respect.

If you want to get really technical, the latest Honda Legend was the actual first true Level 3 self-driving car available to the public. However, it is a Japan-only model that you can lease.