Mercedes-Benz has revealed its new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system which it believes to be a historical development in automotive technology, blending artificial intelligence similar to Apple’s Siri with powerful computers, intuitive hardware and high-definition displays that could be the most advanced infotainment system on the road.
And rather than a mere pipe dream, the German carmaker says its latest system will be available in its most affordable car from the second half of 2018.
Mercedes-Benz research and development chief Ola Kallenius says the system is a major overhaul that brings a completely new experience unlike any other infotainment upgrade before and “has nothing to do with incremental improvements we got used to with regards to interactions with our cars”.
“We consider this to be a revolution,” he says. “It’s historical.”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning will underpin highly sophisticated hardware that pitches the new A-Class as “the ultimate mobile device” that Kallenius says will result in “the best conversation you’ve ever had with a car”.
“The hearts of our vehicles used to be their drivetrains. In the future it will be their hard drives,” he says.
“But that doesn’t mean Mercedes cars will get less personal. On the contrary, our customers will enjoy more personal experiences with our brand than ever before.
“We can make sure our products adapt to their requirements in every detail.”
Working in some ways as a personal assistant, the car would know when you’re driving home from work, adapting to your routines by suggesting that you call a key contact, play a favourite album or stop in at a regular restaurant.
Its displays are configurable in a similar fashion to computer themes and wallpapers, and you can choose from modern and retro displays ranging from information overload to an old-school, bare-bones display and everything in between.
It also offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, though M-B insiders visibly recoil when you ask if the current infotainment benchmarks are part of the package.
"Why would you want to use CarPlay?" one asked, "it's awful".
The controversial element of MBUX surrounds the integration of third-party services such as Tripadvisor, which provides hotel listings and recommendations to Mercedes’ touchscreen setup. Similarly, Yelp (pictured) is behind its business search and contact feature, Amazon Alexa’s shopping service is integrated into the cockpit and Google Home is there as well.
Sajjad Khan, vice president of digital vehicle and mobility for Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, says the third-party apps are there “for the ease of the customer”, and do not represent an advertising arrangement.
But Kallenius says Mercedes will expand the program in a similar way to apps on smartphones, allowing drivers to access subscriber services or pay to unlock special features in the future.
“In some cases we will push content and in some cases it will be like an app store where you can buy it. [But] we are not going to force people to listen to U2,” he said, referencing Apple’s controversial decision to install a surprise pop album on millions of customer iPhones.
The system is set to rival many smartphones in its capabilities and, like an iPhone, a “global search” function similar to a Google search query will deep-dive into different subsystems to bring up a list of relevant items. Search for “Gloria” and it will scour your contacts for anyone by that name, hunt for nearby businesses such as the Gloria Jean’s coffee chain, and dive through your music collection for artists or songs named Gloria, serving them all up in a convenient list.
It will show full web pages such as Wikipedia entries, display text messages and provide other forms of communication we’re yet to experience. But many of those features are only accessible at speeds below 5km/h, and others can only be used when the car is stopped.
But there could be scope in the future to use the systems on the move as future models are equipped with more advanced driver aids that don’t require constant attention, though Mercedes didn’t say as much.
In any case, Kallenius’ team was at pains to make sure MBUX does not contribute toward crashes caused by distracted drivers.
“Safety is a cornerstone of the Mercedes-Benz brand, so we worked a lot to make sure driver distraction is at a minimum. That’s why we have redundancy in driver interaction.”
The redundancy he’s referring to surrounds four different ways you can control the system. The most obvious – one that represents a change in approach from Mercedes – is a 10-inch touchscreen to the right of the main digital instrument panel. You can pinch, zoom, swipe and slide with gestures that should be second-nature to anyone in the market for a new car. It’s augmented by a new laptop-style touchpad in front of a comfortable palm rest where a gearlever might ordinarily be, using subtle haptic feedback to pulse at your fingertips in a similar – though again, more intuitive – fashion to Lexus’ latest efforts.
Further driver inputs include touch-sensitive pads on either side of the steering wheel first used in the current-shape E-Class sedan, allowing access to around 80 per cent of the car’s features without taking a hand off the steering wheel.
Finally, a voice-activated system can be triggered by pressing a speech button on the steering wheel or simply by saying, “Hey, Mercedes” to get its attention.
And the system is far more advanced than anything available now, with the ability to recognised complex sentences and themes.
“Until recently you would use commands such as ‘check weather: Las Vegas,” Khan says.
“No one speaks like that. Our MBUX speech is very intuitive. You can simply ask ‘Hey Mercedes, can I wear my flip flops tomorrow?’
“From now on you can just call and have a chat with the car almost like the people riding on with you.”
The host of a brief ride in the A-Class demonstrated this simply by saying “Hey Mercedes, I’m cold”, which prompted the car to raise its climate control setting by two degrees.
Not only does the system compute complex English commands, it can recognise 23 languages.
“Including Australian,” says Kallenius. “Australia is such an important market to us. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”
As updates and changes are implemented, Mercedes promises rolling upgrades via over-the-air downloads for features including the latest slang and lingo. That said, the system is geared in the direction of US phrasing and customs, at least for now.
Kallenius says it might prove prudent for Aussies to be mindful of their word choice when asking whether flip-flops, double pluggers or thongs might represent appropriate attire for a day outside.
“Thongs? I wouldn’t use it in the US!” he said.
That might trigger the most awkward conversation you’ve had with a car.