On a recent trek to Germany, Mercedes-Benz pulled back the veil on its tech strategy for the next few years and provided Autoblog with a glimpse into what we'll find in its next generation of vehicles. With more than 2,000 patents filed in 2009 alone, the technologies range from the mind-blowing to the mundane, and we've handpicked the most innovative, forward-thinking features bound for future Benz models.
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There's one major problem with touchscreens, and it has little to do with greasy fingerprints. When you're using a touch-based display in a vehicle, your fingers and hand covers part of the screen. This can make navigating menus and panning around maps less-than-intuitive. However, Mercedes' Cam-Touch-Pad HMI (Human-Machine Interface) concept addresses both with a dual hardware solution.
The system utilizes a center console-mounted trackpad similar to the one on your laptop. The difference is that the pad is translucent, allowing a camera mounted behind the pad to track your finger movements. A transparent image of your fingers appears on the dash display, allowing you to see your fingertips glide across the screen while you manipulate the various controls. The image never covers up the virtual buttons and the pad allows you to swipe, push, pinch, turn and rotate everything from maps to climate control settings. The Cam-Touch-Pad was originally shown on the F800 Style concept and if it's given the green light, it could appear on the next S-Class, giving Audi's MMI Touch interface a run for its money.
Traffic Jam Assist
"Now get up to cruising speed and take your hands off the wheel," says the engineer to our right. Despite seeing the system in action earlier, we're skeptical, but we do as our German minder commands while the R-Class in front curves gently to the left. Our specially equipped S-Class follows Benz's glorified minivan as it slowly curves left, then right, then left again before centering itself in the lane. The S never misses a beat, staying within 20 feet of the R's bumper the entire time. The self-driving car is almost a reality and it's about to make start-and-stop traffic slightly less mind-numbing.
Mercedes has also evolved its Distronic Plus active cruise control to the next level. Using the same radar-based sensors that detect a vehicle in front to match its speed, and combining them with a stereo camera mounted above the rearview mirror, the Traffic Jam Assist system can analyze a vehicle in front (up to a distance of 50 meters and 25 mph) and steers the car without driver intervention. Well, almost. If the driver takes his hands off the wheel for more than eight seconds, an alert chimes in to inform them that the system will shut down without some kind of control, and after another three seconds of hands-free driving, Traffic Jam Assist turns off.
After playing with the system for the better part of 10 minutes, we found that a palm on the wheel was enough for the sensor (a 50,000-euro prototype mounted behind the wheel) to recognize our hand on the wheel, but a fingertip – an unfortunate but preferred means of steering for millions of commuters – didn't do the job. And what if the vehicle in front decides to do an impromptu lane change? The cameras also track the lines of the road, ensuring that you'll never leave your lane. As soon as Mercedes gets the cost in check, Traffic Jam Assist should be coming to a range-topping Merc in a few year's time.
The Virtual Highway
Deep within the bowels of Mercedes' new $220 million testing facility in Stuttgart are five simulators. We'll be getting to the big boy of the bunch in a moment, but the Virtual Highway has a more direct line to Benz's production models.
Mercedes starts by driving a truck equipped with a brace of high-definition cameras and lasers down a particularly pock-marked road (the one we got the sample was a stretch of road in Los Angeles, CA). The data from the drive is downloaded, analyzed and incorporated into an Benz-developed computer program that's hooked up to the hydraulic platform pictured above. As the video plays back, each and every bump, imperfection and crease of the road is transmitted through the platform and into the butts of the testers. This allows Mercedes to virtually tune a suspension without leaving their cozy simulator facility. The engineers are adamant that this isn't designed to be a substitute for real-world testing – it's a supplement to gather data. So what if you used similar technology to modify a vehicle's suspension on the fly? Meet Magic Body Control.
Magic Body Control
Utilizing a pair of stereo cameras mounted on the windshield – similar to those used for Traffic Jam Assist – the system "observes" the road in front of the vehicle from two perspectives, analyzes the data and then tells the Advanced Body Control (ABC) suspension how to deal with the bumps. The suspension system at each wheel acts independently, allowing the vehicle to effortless float over potholes and road ruts. Expect the first implementation of Magic Body Control to come to Mercedes' products later this year.
Your Personal Assistant 'Gloria'
Voice commands have come a long way in just the last few years, but Mercedes believe that the wide-spread adoption is hindered by the lack of natural speech. Mercedes' solution is 'Gloria,' a digital avatar that's displayed on the COMAND screen to take voice commands.
Mercedes' rationale is sound: You're more inclined to speak naturally to a human figure than talking out loud to no one. So when you see Gloria's face, you know she's ready to take any command, ranging from navigation instructions to point-of-interest searches. Ford has been toying with similar "virtual assistant" avatar technology, EVA, for at least a couple of years now, as shown on its 2009 showcar, the Lincoln Concept C.
Mercedes maintains that despite recent advances, conversational commands are still three-to-five years away, and they'll probably never be able to fully dissect all dialects and accents. However, the bigger issue is with computing power. You can't fit a Cray into the trunk of an SLK, but fitting a high-speed wireless connection connected would allow the system to tap into the cloud for speech recognition, similar to what Google is doing with Android's Voice-to-Text functionality.
The World's Most Advanced Driving Simulator
In May of 1985, Daimler-Benz built its first in-house developed simulator, and in the intervening years, the automaker has been at the forefront of simulator technology. The latest addition is this 300-ton behemoth in Stuttgart, spanning over 24 feet – enough for any Benz to fit inside – and equipped with 40-foot tracks for horizontal and vertical motion, a 360-degree display fed by eight projectors and six hydraulic drive "elements" (i.e. legs) to simulate pitch, yaw and a variety of other movements.
The hexapod sim contains a fully-built vehicle, with data lines sending information 1,000 times a second to the bank of computers outside, and can simulate everything from country roads to downtown drives, allowing Mercedes' engineers to tune everything from suspension compression to braking systems, along with different drivetrains and NVH testing. Is the roar of the engine bouncing off the walls of a building and entering the cabin? They can increase the volume, pinpoint where the noise is intruding and hammer out a new seal in a few day's time.
Situated in the driver's seat of a full-size CLS, Benz's boffins flicked on the screens and let us go from a virtual drive through the countryside and into a small town. The sensations prove to be disconcerting but clinically accurate, with quick steering movements instantly translated into lateral force. Stamping on the brake pedal brought about the same kind of forward dive you'd expect on the road, and we were able to sample both early and late prototype suspension setups back-to-back to see how Mercedes engineered the system to balance comfort, compliance, control and sportiness.
The sim is used for both development and final product testing, with regular drivers coming inside to test the physical limits of a vehicle without the risk of injury or damage. So if you get a call from Mercedes asking you to drive its next generation of products, you could spend some time inside the world's most advanced driving simulator.