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.

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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.

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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.

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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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