CES 2012: Mercedes-Benz’s Dr. Z Downplays Importance of Automated Driving

With Mercedes-Benz often at the forefront of automotive technological innovation, it wasn’t surprising to see Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chairman and head of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, deliver his first-ever keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show. Zetsche explained what a true connected vehicle means to Mercedes-Benz. While cars and consumer electronics aren’t brought together out of necessity, the two form significant connections that allow drivers a more engaging on-road experience.

“Here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas there are some people who view the automobile as a mere accessory to consumer electronics. Conversely, at the auto show in Detroit there are many people who view consumer electronics as mere trimmings for the car,” Zetsche said. “Both points of view miss the point: as much as a smartphone can be far more than just a tool for communication, a smart car can be more than just a means of transportation. Precisely at the interfaces between communication and mobility, vast potential for innovation lies dormant, and we intend to tap it.”

As he put it, getting around in a vehicle has traditionally meant independence for the driver — from distances, from locations, from people, from parents. But the future of personal transportation is looking grim, especially when one considers the serious strings attached — ones like our dependence on fossil fuels and our shrinking space constraints. Connectivity, Dr. Z explained, is one solution that will help mitigate these negative effects. “Auto-mobility,” therefore, is the philosophy of turning our “digital lifestyle into our driving style.”

He explained that connectivity can help alleviate traffic congestion and minimize collisions by enabling vehicles to “speak” to one another. It can reduce fuel consumption by coordinating with friends or other trustworthy people when it comes to sharing rides. It can also promote alternative fuel usage by giving drivers the locations of their closest hydrogen power station or quick-charge EV stop. Smarter, more eco-friendly driving is connected driving.

The latest tool drivers can use to be more informed and in touch with their digitized world is mbrace2, Mercedes-Benz’s second-generation cloud-based communication system. Together with the mbrace2 smartphone app, it gives realtime traffic, news, weather, Facebook and Twitter updates, and concierge services (among other things) to drivers with the press of a button and simple voice command. It’ll first be available on the 2013 SL, with all other models to get the system in the following months.

A few years down the road, Mercedes hopes to introduce a fully intelligent mobility platform based on a prototype it calls Dice, or Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience. Dice turns a vehicle’s windshield into a head-up display and its dash into a digital pad. Together, they show points of interest, friends’ locations, and surrounding locale information; they also alert drivers of pedestrians and vehicles in their immediate vicinity for added safety. In essence, dice mixes augmented reality with natural spoken commands and hand gestures. Think Minority Report and you’ll understand Dice a lot better.

Sure, multifaceted automotive connectivity is a great convenience that can benefit drivers but, in the end, does this mean Mercedes-Benz vehicles are destined to become appliances that drive themselves?

“We don’t believe that autonomous driving is the ultimate goal. We still want the driver to be in charge, in control, be the pilot. But when you are stuck in a traffic jam, when you are driving five hours straight through Nebraska, it might not be the most fun (to drive). And at that time you can switch and say, ‘Take over, I’ll read a nice book, look at movies, or listen to music.’ So it’s your choice, you’ll always be in control, but you have the choice to hand (the controls) over to an autonomous car.”

We have to admit: We could deal with that.

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