CAR makers don't normally introduce hi-tech innovations in low-end models. But the first car to come with Benz's advanced Artificial Intelligence-enhanced multimedia set-up will be the A-Class, the brand's smallest model.
Called MBUX - Mercedes-Benz User eXperience - the innovative tech will arrive in the completely new A-Class due in Australia in the second half of the year. The five-seat hatchback was the No. 2 seller for Mercedes in Australia last year, thanks to a price starting under $40,000.
What will make MBUX special, according to Mercedes, is the ability to make sense of natural human speech. It will also recognise and remember a driver's routines and preferences, then use what it learns to adapt over time to its owner.
Mercedes is so confident the tech will take off it's predicting voice control will be the driving world's preferred way of interacting with cars by 2020.
The intelligent voice recognition is woken with simple two-word phrase.
"Hey Mercedes" was used throughout the international reveal of MBUX and the new A-Class's exterior design last week in Amsterdam but the company plans to use different combinations to suit markets around the world.
The US will have "Hi Mercedes", Spain will use "Hola Mercedes" and it's possible Australians will get to say "G'day Mercedes".
Voice-control has been around in high-end cars for years but with MBUX Mercedes aims to take a giant step forward in the field by harnessing the power of AI. The German maker chose US speech recognition specialists Nuance as a key partner in development of MBUX.
"We more or less threw away everything we had," says Mercedes development chief Ola Källenius, referring to the time, three years ago, when work began on MBUX.
As well as being able to understand natural speech, something current versions of its Linguatronic technology can't do, the new teach had to tap the learning ability of its in-built AI and be updateable over the air. Mercedes also decided to add touchscreen functionality, something it's so far avoided.
Speech recognition seems to have been the toughest job. Car interior noise levels and cross-talk between its occupants were a major challenge, says user interaction director Georges Massing.
Making it work in areas without data connectivity was another, he says. Without access to data stored in the Cloud, say in signal-free underground car parks, the MBUX-equipped A-Class won't be able to help if you ask what the weather will be like in Melbourne next Wednesday.
But the driver will still be able to control in-built functions. Saying "Hey Mercedes, I'm cold," for example, will prompt the A-Class to increase cabin temperature.
And MBUX is able to interact with other Internet of Things devices using Google Home and Amazon Alexa technology. It can also pair up with Apple Watch and Android Wear devices. "MBUX is our operating system," says Källenius, "but it can talk to other systems."
Mercedes-Benz chose the A-Class to launch MBUX because the small hatchback attracts younger and more tech-savvy customers. In Europe they're typically about 10 years younger than the average Mercedes customer, and the situation is similar in Australia.
But MBUX is destined to find its way, over time, into everything Mercedes-Benz builds. "Rest assured, we will quickly proliferate this technology," Källenius says. Trickle-down was the way automotive tech advances used to roll out. Now, with the new A-Class, the age of bubble-up has begun.
Remember the famous elk test failure of the very first A-Class, way back in 1997? Mercedes does. When a Swedish publication performed a manoeuvre to simulate swerving round a large, antlered critter, then-new small A-Class rolled. The fix was to take electronic stability tech, introduced only two years earlier in the big and expensive S-Class 600 Coupe, and install it in the affordable hatch. Two decades later, with MBUX, the tech traffic is in the opposite direction.
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