Cars! BBG visits Mercedes-Benz' telematics research lab

Attention Assist test sensors.JPG
Pale and precise behind rimless spectacles, Johann Jungwith looks the consummate engineer; though a longtime U.S. resident, Formula 1 is still his sport. As president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz' U.S. research arm, it's his responsibility to oversee development of new technologies intended to make driving safer and drivers smarter. Today, however, more pressing matters are at hand: he's showing us how to pair an iPhone with a Merc.

Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz is a sponsor of BBG. Last week, we drove the new E-Class and were the first bloggers or journalists to get a look inside their North American R&D lab. We're writing a series of posts about the tech we saw there; Mercedes-Benz has no editorial involvement in these items.

"We work closely with Apple," Jungwirth says, taking us through the stumper that stumped us. It turns out to be a quirk of the iPhone's Bluetooth UI. He reminds us again, just a little sternly, that telematics and the other research that his team pursues aren't just about entertainment and sound systems. Then it's back to the task at hand. "Apple's implementation is a little different to the Blackberry." Trivial matters, for sure. But the top-shelf entertainment and comms stuff (the pairing complete, calls can be made from the dashboard) is part and parcel of systems that range from center console iPod controls to ingenious safety systems that scan the space around you. Developed at the unassuming Palo Alto lab, just a couple of blocks from a branch of Frys, it all adds up to a futuristic experience--if you can afford it. In the garage, sat near a tiny Smart car and a hydrogen-fueled prototype, the 2010 E-class is what Mecedes' PR folks want us to see: $50k for the basic E350, $57 if you like the V8, and all packed with the telematic technology. But its the stuff you can't yet buy that we came for. "Palo Alto's focus is primarily on future technology," Jungwirth said. "Technology that awaits certain infrastructure or technical requirements before it can be utilized in passenger vehicles. The best way to describe the relationship of the E-Class to Palo Alto is to say that the E-Class contains the necessary -- and the latest -- building blocks for where we're looking to go -- in this instance in the areas of telematics and safety." Within a couple of years, for example, buyers will have the option of an always-on 4G cellular connection through next-gen LTE networks, streaming HD video, Google streetview and an appstore full of whatever developers can dream up, right to the dash. If all goes to plan, within a few years the machine will detect forthcoming intersections and hit the brakes if you don't spot a red.
Offered a demo of the Smart Stop tech--a portable traffic light set up in the lab's car lot and a prototype vehicle--we saw that it worked flawlessly, but needs UI polish in the cabin. As we accelerated toward the "intersection," warnings blared. The driver put his foot down. Yards out, antilock brakes pulsed and the machine shuddered to a halt, inches from the invisible line. My distracted future self is safe ... assuming there's no distracted future tailgater behind me. It isn't yet ready for the real world: the difficult task of convincing governments to install compatible intersection technology looms. Even before then, the industry as a whole must agree to the standards and implement them. It it were not for these hurdles, it could already be saving lives. That said, their driver-assisting safety tech program is already bearing results. In the 2010 model, the autonomous braking system can spot a rear-end collission about to happen and hold your horses.
Sensors in the steering wheel know the subtle finger movements characteristic of a driver nodding off: a pixel-art coffee cup flashes behind it. Radar warns of road users lurking in the blind spot: wing mirrors flash amber for attention, red for risk. It sees lane markings and can tell the difference between intended maneuvers and sleepy drifting. A rear camera and proximity sensors make parallel parking a feasible proposition for lovers of boatlike long-wheelbase sedans. It keeps other drivers in mind--high beams dip when oncoming traffic closes in--but control freaks can relax. Jungwirth was quick to point out that it can all be disabled.
The interactive stuff and entertainment are presented through the COMAND system, accessed through dash controls, and whose interface has its vices and virtues: a large screen and solid performance made sat-nav and tune-picking less distracting, but conversations with the voice recognition software proceed slowly. Users at third-party forums such as MB World, Benzworld and Mercedes Forum offer mutual support on the details. Though pushing the high-tech story hard, Mercedes has also cut the entry price of the E-class to squeeze beefy rivals like BMW's gas-guzzling M5 and Audi's A6. The 2010 E's reviews are generally positive: Mother Proof wrote that it is "cutting edge of safety innovations," and Edmunds reported that it'll "serve you well." The Car Connection complained about vinyl seats in the base model and a "steep learning curve" with the tech. A roundup at Rankings and Reviews puts it on top of its class. The Truth About Cars says that Mercedes needs to offer more. Even with the lower prices and new tech, however, the challenge of impressing critics is just a start: luxury cars aren't big sellers this year, according to Forbes. More info is at Mercedes-Benz's website.
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17 Responses to Cars! BBG visits Mercedes-Benz' telematics research lab

  1. Anonymous says:

    A MERC? I thought this post was going to be about Benzes, not mercenaries or Mercuries. Jeez, get your rich wanker slang on-line, beschizzle, you sound like a gorram prole.


  2. Jack Curtis says:

    WOW! That car is totally sick! I’ve heard mixed reviews, but the upcoming technology is looking like a gadget lovers dream. I can’t believe the access you guys get sometimes. Thoughts on bringing along avid readers?!!

  3. zikman says:

    this article has some weird flow. it was kinda hard to read.

  4. zikman says:

    also, it may be just me

  5. TJ S says:

    New tech like this always goes into the expensive cars first, and propagates down to everyday vehicles over time.

    ABS, crumple zones, airbags, these things all started off as expensive options, and are now standard on just about every new car on the market.

    As for the idea of people thinking that having this tech in their car allows them to be stupid, that sounds awfully similar to churches and parent-teacher associations arguing that allowing teenagers to have condoms encourages them to have more sex.

    IMHO, idiots who would use these safety features as an excuse for drunk driving would drive drunk anyway. We might as well give them all the safety features that we can, to lower the chance of catastrophic results.

  6. Brandon West says:

    I hate everything about this car. Can we really not be trusted to pay attention to the road, brake when necessary, and not drive when fatigued without a computer beeping at us or doing it for us?

    Either make me a car that requires NO input or leave all the control in my hands.

  7. Rob Beschizza says:

    #1: Check out definition 6 at UD!

    But yeah, I guess “Merc” is quite “British Prole” these days.

  8. Brandon West says:

    Airbags and ABS are standard on cars because of legislation requiring them, not because of market forces. Thankfully, because this stuff is more of a gimmick than an actual safety feature, I don’t think they will force manufacturers to add it.

    I don’t want tech that protects me from myself, and potentially puts others at risk while doing so.

    If this saves some lives, that’s great. But I’d be more supportive of something that treats the cause and not the symptom. If you make the symptoms more tolerable, there is less incentive to treat the disease. Can you imagine a world in which every driver learned how to park and change lanes with the help of proximity sensors? I want to put my faith in people, not in sensors.

  9. dculberson says:

    Clarkson called them Mercs. He is a British Prole though, or at least a British Tool.

  10. toxonix says:

    I hope the manual transmission doesn’t go the way of the dodo bird.
    And I don’t mean those ‘sport shift’ or electro-hydraulic systems.

  11. Bahroh says:

    This is smart. technology does help a lot; especially the appropriate ones. trusting in people . . . is yet to work even 25% of the time.Advances in tehc doesn’t make old skills unnecessary;specialization does. Helps one to advance with other discoveries and innovations. Definition of ‘Merc’is indeed hillarious. Just add ‘Benz’to disambiguate.

  12. Bahroh says:

    Just a thought; i believe you should add the ‘share’ option to bring the news items to the attention of fellow gadget freaks

  13. TJ S says:

    Advances in technology often make old skills unnecessary. Most people (in first-world countries, at least) don’t know how to take down and clean an animal for food, or how to grow a garden without seed packets and fertilizer from a nursery, because there’s no need to know how to do these things anymore. Advances in technology made those skills obsolete, relegated to hobbies.

    There’s no longer any real point in learning cursive, memorizing phone numbers, or working a card catalog system in a library.

  14. TJ S says:

    To answer Brandon’s question: No.

    The zero-input car won’t be here for awhile. In the meantime, this keeps (my grandma/half-asleep people/drunk people) from hurting themselves and others.

  15. Enochrewt says:

    the name of a chimp who has homosexual tendencies, also used as an adjective to describe the ferociousness of hard male oral sex.

    The urban dictionary never fails to make me smile.

  16. Brandon West says:

    This might help prevent some accidents caused by RICH grandmas/half-asleep/drunk people that can afford a $50,000 luxury car. And if Grandma really needs this to drive safely, she shouldn’t be driving at all. Technology like this enables poor behavior.

    I’ll just take a look at that text message, if the guy in front of me slows down my car will brake for me… no big deal. I’ve had a few drinks, but my car will keep me in my lane. It’s all good.

  17. Rob Beschizza says:

    My thought is that the nature of the “override” technologies is that they should be completely hidden: they save your life when it needs saving. But the stuff like proximity sensors is great: it simply makes backing up and switching lanes much easier.

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