Wunderbar! Mercedes' Self-Driving Wonder-Car of the Future

<b class="credit">Mercedes-Benz</b>The F 015 concept car shows Mercedes-Benz's vision of a self-driving luxury car.
Mercedes-BenzThe F 015 concept car shows Mercedes-Benz's vision of a self-driving luxury car.

Is Apple (AAPL) really preparing to build a car? Reports in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and elsewhere have suggested that the Silicon Valley trend-setter is at least researching the possibility.

If Apple were to build a car, it's a safe bet that it would be a technological wonder, with cutting-edge self-driving technology and smooth electric drive. It might even be the basis of a car service, one that could change the way many of us interact with cars.

It might very well take the world by storm, and leave most of the global automakers scrambling to catch up. But at least one automaker plans to be ready: Mercedes-Benz is already showing off a technological wonder-car of its own.

<b class="credit">Mercedes-Benz</b>

A Very Different Kind of Mercedes-Benz Luxury Sedan

German luxury-car giant Mercedes-Benz surprised industry-watchers when it unveiled its F 015 "Luxury in Motion" concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas back in January.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-947%The F 015 is Mercedes' vision of what a self-driving luxury car might look like once the technology is mature. The company is convinced that the advent of autonomous cars will "bring about major changes" and that "the car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a private retreating space," as it said in a recent statement.

That idea drove the design of the battery-electric F 015, which doesn't look like any car you've ever seen. In fact, it's more like a luxurious private lounge on wheels than it is a conventional car.

The car's side doors open wide to reveal an interior lined in wood and rich leather, with four lounge chairs that can rotate to allow the passengers to sit face-to-face. The car's settings are controlled by big touchscreens set in the doors and dash, And while the car is clearly intended to drive itself, a steering wheel and pedals are provided so that a driver can take manual control.

The F 015 Is a Show Car, but Some of Its Technology Is Already Here

Of course, the F 015 is a show car, and many of its details are designers' flights of fancy. But think of it this way: It's an expert's view of how cars might evolve over the next 10 or 15 years.

Parent company Daimler (DDAIF) has made big investments to ensure that Mercedes is a leader in the self-driving revolution, if and when it comes. In fact, there's already a Mercedes on the market that can drive itself -- albeit only in limited circumstances, for now.

Called "Intelligent Drive," the Mercedes system consists of a variety of "smart" safety features. Many are familiar to new-car buyers: blind-spot warnings, parking assist and so forth. But under limited circumstances -- stop-and-go highway traffic -- some versions of Mercedes' big S-Class sedan can drive themselves: The system can be set to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you and to keep itself from wandering out of the highway lane. All by itself.

Automakers, Regulators Carefully Step Toward Self-Driving World

For now, the biggest challenge facing self-driving technology is the law. It's not yet legal to run a self-driving car on most U.S. roads. That's why Tesla Motors (TSLA), which is releasing an "autopilot" feature for its cars this summer, will limit it to highway driving, much like Mercedes' system -- at least, for now.

More automakers are planning to jump in with similarly limited self-driving features soon. Both Audi and Cadillac are expected to release automated highway-driving systems like Mercedes' within the next year or two, and most other automakers have similar products under development.

Once perfected, self-driving technology could make car accidents much less common. But the risks of a less-than-perfect system are obvious, and nobody wants the imperfections exposed on, say, a busy highway at rush hour. That's why automakers (and lawmakers) are taking baby steps for now. And that's why, for now, a car like the F 015 is just an idea. But it's not quite science fiction: The technology to build such a car is not very far away. The big question is, will consumers -- and lawmakers -- want it?

Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.