Telematics, infotainment innovation and Mercedes-Benz

Speaking at the Telematics Update conference in Munich, Ralf Lamberti, Daimler’s director of telematics, infotainment and cabin E/E, outlined a bold new vision for a high-end infotainment system that he hopes will put Mercedes-Benz cars in the middle of an ever expanding universe of connected services.

It will be a universe populated by a new breed of multitasking individuals, called, in Mercedes parlance, “digital natives,” who will increasingly expect to roam seamlessly across multiple platforms without losing access to their buddy lists, music files and status updates.

And to keep them happy behind the wheel, Mercedes will not only need to provide ways to integrate their brought-in smartphones and tablets into its onboard infotainment systems but also to provide remote access to the vehicle. Lamberti called it “putting the car in the Web” as opposed to just having “the Web in the car.”

“Data is already in the cloud,” Lamberti said. “Applications [are] also moving to the cloud. In the end, everything, every device that we use on a daily basis will be just a window to the cloud, whether it’s your watch, your glasses, the car.”

Modular architecture

Mercedes has been working on this vision for the past couple of years. One of the first things Mercedes did was to chop to pieces its embedded system, a monolith that weighed in at more than 10 million lines of code. While the old system was an impressive feat of software engineering, it was complicated to upgrade and severely limited the company’s choices when it came to suppliers of its constituent parts.

The system’s new modular architecture not only makes it possible for Mercedes to add or dump functionality with relative ease, and thus better stay on top of quick consumer electronics development cycles, but also to do so without the driver ever needing to visit a dealership, thanks to over-the-air firmware updates.

According to Lamberti, the new architecture now has two types of built-in interfaces, one separating the system’s core from applications, such as navigation or media player, another separating the applications from the human-machine interface (HMI). The plan is to also extend this modular approach to the instrument cluster. (For more on HMIs, see Industry insight: Telematics and the human-machine interface.)

Access to the cloud

On the connectivity side, Mercedes now has in place a robust backend and a virtual private network for an always-on access to the cloud. Run by a supplier but remaining fully under Mercedes’ control, the backend is an easily scalable solution capable of meeting the car’s growing software and content needs as well as collecting and processing a wide array of customer data that Mercedes plans to use to improve care and to build new business models.

As security of the data connection is paramount, Mercedes has implemented advanced encryption, launched regular security audits and even enlisted hackers to probe the system for weaknesses. Apps and content are front and center, as is integration of the smartphone. (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.)

Despite its somewhat conservative image as a car manufacturer, Mercedes considers itself an important innovator in the area of connected infotainment. Mercedes has been operating its own app store since last June. It currently offers Morningstar Finance stock updates (€9.95 a year), news in multiple languages (€9.95 a year), Parking Finder for Germany, Austria and Switzerland (€9.95 a year), and Michelin Travel and Restaurant Guide available for 36 European countries and in five languages (€99).  

The 'best or nothing' approach

But until recently its 'best or nothing' approach to car manufacturing held the company back when it came to smartphone integration, something BMW, Ford and General Motors had gotten a much earlier start on. With the new A-Class, which integrates the iPhone in several different ways, Mercedes is back among the front-runners, though the solution it chose has received mixed reviews.

The simplest form of smartphone integration is to use the phone’s data connectivity to power the variety of connected services running on the head unit. At the other end of the spectrum is Nokia’s MirrorLink technology that leverages not only the smartphone’s connectivity but also its apps, projecting the smartphone’s screen on the center stack display and making it possible for the apps to be controlled via the vehicle’s HMI.

Mercedes’s approach, adapted from Daimler’s smart vehicles, falls somewhere in between. While apps remain on the head unit, the smartphone is put to use as a kind of auxiliary onboard computer that provides a simplified user interface to a handful of key infotainment features, such as multimedia, navigation, car finder and a system from making hands-free calls. It also makes for some stunning 3D graphics.

Integrating social networking functions

There are two different hook-ups available for the iPhone. Costing €279, the basic kit clips the phone above the center console and uses the phone’s multitouch screen for interaction. A fancier solution costing €690 relies on the car’s built-in 5.8-inch color screen and keeps the iPhone out of sight in the glove compartment. This latter set-up is controlled by a rotary controller in the center armrest and comes with a deeper integration of social networking functions.

Both solutions require the user to run a proprietary Mercedes app on his or her iPhone. The app costs €29.99 with the basic kit and is free of charge for the more advanced one. 

Although the solution earned kudos for fluid 3D graphics—and for being an industry first to integrate Siri, iPhone’s natural language user interface—many found that it overlapped with the embedded COMAND Online/mbrace, lacking in automotive-grade voice solutions and plain wrong in charging for apps. “They shouldn’t be charging for apps. I can’t get past it,” says Roger Lanctot, associate director, automotive multimedia and communications service, Strategy Analytics. 

What also elicited shrugs was Mercedes’ choice to rely on a cradle instead of a wireless device pairing. But this choice is easier to understand. According to one analyst, Mercedes customers demand high quality and predictability in service delivery, something an occasionally flaky Bluetooth connection is hard-pressed to deliver. 

Relevance to the car

To build apps, Mercedes relies on an international network of its own development centers, though it may gradually open up to third-party developers as well. It has a dedicated group of 40 to 50 engineers in Palo Alto, a smaller group of developers in Beijing focusing on the Chinese market, coders in Bangalore and overall integrators in Stuttgart. A major emphasis is put on relevance to the car, minimal driver distraction and speed of deployment.

Although Mercedes works with an annual planning cycle for new apps, an approach that Dominique Bonte, vice president and group director, telematics and M2M, ABI Research, finds “rigid” and “too long,” the company can rush things along when it chooses, as was the case during the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship when Mercedes launched an app with soccer news updates within several weeks.

A big part of the company’s vision is what Lamberti called “remote convenience,” which consists of remote information (location, range, state of charge), remote control (things like door lock/unlock and air-conditioning on/off) and remote configuration (user data, entertainment), all possible to access via portable connected devices.

According to Lamberti, these features will give the user ability “to interact very conveniently with his car from any device, any place, whenever he likes.” But they will also give Mercedes valuable insight into the driver’s thinking and preferences that can be monetized further down the line.

“It will help us to be much closer to the customer from our side, generating customer data,” he said. “Customers will have to open an account. We will get customer data and be much more in tune with the customer based on that remote convenience, which, of course, brings us a lot of ideas and use cases for how we can interact with the customer.”

User interaction

The company is already using some touch and voice controls, but the plan is to take things much further. “User interaction will be very important in the future,” Lamberti said. “It is very [much] related to telematics and infotainment and it is also related to the ability to drive more autonomously.”

According to Lamberti, customers will see many new ways of interacting with the vehicle, including augmented reality windshields, gesture control and a lot more natural Web-based voice interaction.

But that’s not all. “We will have context awareness and we will have prediction so the systems will learn and will be able to predict for the passenger or driver the next steps of interaction,” Lamberti said.

“The car already knows a lot, but we don’t take advantage of this data. It knows whether you are driving during the week, what you are doing when in the car, which controls you are using, when you make a certain phone call. It would not be difficult to come up with a suggestion from the system on what would be the next interaction.” 

Jan Stojaspal is a regular contributor to TU.

For the latest on infotainment, check out Consumer Telematics Show 2013 on January 7 in Las Vegas.

Coming up: V2X for Auto Safety and Mobility Europe 2013 on February 20-21 in Frankfurt, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2013 on March 19-20 in Amsterdam, Telematics India and South Asia 2013 on April 16-17 in India, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 8-9 in London, Telematics Russia 2013 on May 14-15 in Moscow, Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6 and Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 17-21.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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