Mercedes enters the self driving car race

Mercedes-Benz rolled into CES with its “F 015 Luxury in Motion” concept, a bold, completely bonkers vision of a future in which we become entirely optional behind the wheel.

The car peers way down the road at an autonomous future in which, it seems, cars look like bars of soap on the outside and sleek, vaguely European conference rooms inside. But let’s make two things clear right away. First, this concept car is so far from production as to be little more than a flight of fancy. Given the current state of autonomous tech, we’d guess its probably 20 years from reality. Robo-cars are coming, but there are piles of problems to solve, from the technical—actually building cars that drive themselves—to sorting out the myriad safety and regulatory questions. There’s also the not insignificant challenge of getting consumers to relinquish control of the wheel. Each of these things will take years to accomplish, in no small part because the feds and the auto industry aren’t known for moving quickly.

Second, this car is ugly, which is a surprise, given the generally excellent design Mercedes is known for. It’s hard to believe this sliver of soap came from the same company that gave us the 300 SL Gullwing or even the SL 500.

Still, the car is remarkable because it shows Mercedes is thinking ahead and peering far into the future to a time when autonomous cars will fundamentally change how we design our vehicles. Once computers are inarguably better drivers than we are and regulations reflect that, longstanding norms like forward-facing seats, mirrors, and pedals are no longer necessary. It will be a seismic shift, and automakers will be free to pursue exciting, even revolutionary, ideas. Google embraced this with the forward-thinking (though somewhat goofy) autonomous prototype we saw in May, and tuning house Rinspeed explored it last month with its Budii robotic EV concept.