Mercedes-Benz infotainment system hopes to be Siri of cars

MBUX, based on artificial intelligence, will first be installed on the entry-level A-Class.

Today at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its all-new User Experience Interface. This is a fancy term for the means by which drivers and passengers interact with the systems integrated into a vehicle, such as climate control, navigation and entertainment.

Though it seems improbable, as recently as the first decade of the 21st century, the majority of this input was accomplished through the twist of a knob or the push of a button. The experience, like the cars, was analog: mechanical and physical. But that was before we decided that our cars needed not only to transport us in comfort and style, but also act as a mobile office, concert hall, concierge, spa, atlas, movie theater, friend and shopping portal. It was also before the iPhone and its magical touch screen and voice-actuated assistant, Siri, transformed the way we interact with technology.

With the massive proliferation of in-car systems, and their enmeshed web of activation, we need to create new means to sort and engage them while driving. This requires not only an interpreter for the Tower of Babel of languages these features "speak," but a virtual conductor to make sure everyone comes in on cue and plays nice together for the audience – the driver and passengers.

"We had to bring the customer somehow into the middle of the whole experience," said Georges Massing, director of user experience for Mercedes-Benz. "And we are bringing more complexity into the car, so our main challenge was to make things [that look] difficult easy to use for the customers."

Mercedes' new MBUX is, like nearly everything futuristic we hear about these days, based in artificial intelligence (AI). This does not mean there is a tender little robot boy living in your dashboard, as in the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie of the same name. It means that there is a bunch of code, equipped with smart algorithms capable of learning via repeated exposure and experience. Oh, and it can talk. And listen.

"We offer three different ways of interacting with the system," said Massing. "We have already a great experience with the steering wheel-mounted touchpad by introducing it in the E-Class. Now, for the first time, we have a touch display in the main screen. And the last thing is our main natural-voice communication, which is the speech recognition."

Of course, this being Mercedes-Benz, a company responsible for recent luxury innovations such as an in-car perfume atomizer, a heated armrest and an integrated Wellness Protocol, there are also some neat new features integrated into the system. It's personalizable and intelligent (or at least artificially), so it remembers each user and sets up his or her preferences in terms of cabin colors, displays, seat position and entertainment.

It has a new high-resolution, double-widescreen 21-inch horizontal display, with Benz's first-ever touch screen. It has a new nav display with augmented reality (AR) technology that allows for intensely precise positional accuracy. It can platonically mate with your calendar and learn your driving, shopping and dining preferences to suggest things for you to do on your way to or from your destinations. It even has Yelp and Trip Advisor apps integrated to take care of your restaurant and hotel recommendations. And it has adaptive voice control that recognizes natural language, and learns your voice and its invented commands. It can even be summoned, Siri-like, by pressing a button on the steering wheel or by just saying, "Hey, Mercedes."

Interestingly enough, Mercedes has chosen to first install this new environment not in its top-of-the-line S-Class, but in its entry-level A-Class, an all-new version of which will be unveiled in Amsterdam this winter. This seems counterintuitive at first. But, as with everything with Mercedes, there is a deeper plan.

"Where do you find customers that are young, really active and very sensitive to the use of such new devices that are integrated? This is only in the A-Class," Massing said. "There you have people with a very high affinity to technology. For them, it's very easy to use, the integration of the system. They are just waiting for it. So, this is why we said, OK, if there is a customer who is really willing [to embrace] the system, it's this type of customer."

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