Even before our camera is set up for the first photo, Sajjad Khan voices an idea: We could show one half of his head as a realistic image, the other half spewing out digital visions of automotive designs of the future. The art director and photographer look at one another questioningly. How do you photograph a vision? Especially one that is confidential? Khan heads up the Digital Vehicle and Mobility unit at Mercedes-Benz Development, where he coordinates the activities of 1,000 specialists based in locations ranging from Germany’s Sindelfingen to the United States, India, Japan, South Korea and China. Their common goal is to develop software and hardware solutions for the connected vehicle – making cars safer and more comfortable by integrating systems, apps and services that can be used both inside and outside the vehicle.
For the photo shoot, we agree to sit Khan at the wheel of an E-Class, with a projector casting ones and zeros onto his face. “That’s very appropriate,” he says. The new E-Class is the most digitized vehicle ever. And the binary code is too abstract to reveal any confidential developments. In any case, Khan would rather talk about his visions during our interview.
What is more important for a car produced in 2016: its engine or the software?
One is as important as the other. When you drive a Mercedes-Benz, you expect it to be an outstanding experience in every way – from the sound it makes when you open the door to the driving performance and the way it displays useful information.
But the digital aspect is now increasingly significant.
That’s true. Our aim is to explore all digitization possibilities with a view to enhancing quality of life. Humanity has made enormous progress over the last 100 years through the application of classical engineering – from horse-drawn carriages to aircraft. Over the next century, our lives will be shaped more by computer technologies. But mechanical innovations will retain their importance, because we are humans made of flesh and blood, and not just virtual beings.
How digital is the new E-Class?
Many still see in-car connectivity as a buzzword. But for us it is no longer a trend: It is already a reality. And the new E-Class is setting the benchmark as the most connected car imaginable.
What do you mean by connectivity?
The E-Class has enormous digital capabilities. And these are not just an attractive bonus, they are an integral part of the car – a vein running all the way through it. But connectivity itself is just an enabling technology. The real question is: What do we do with it?
The E-Class has enormous digital capabilities. These are not just an attractive bonus – they are a vein running all the way through the car.”
Exactly – so what are you doing with it?
Let me give you one example. The E-Class provides the driver with tailored, context-driven information. If you are driving a vehicle and getting low on fuel, the navigation system will show you all the gas stations along your route. No need for you to select a special tab or open an app. No need to do anything, except choose a gas station and allow yourself to be guided to it.
How can software improve comfort in ways that a good chassis cannot?
We call our approach “24 plus.” The basic idea is that all of us, whether we are royalty or tradespeople, are restricted by the 24 hours in any given day. What we aim to do is buy additional time for our customers by providing value-added services and customized information delivered automatically as and when required.
All of us have just 24 hours in a day. We aim to buy additional time for our customers.”
Does the work you are doing make driving any safer?
Yes. Safety has absolute priority when it comes to how the driver interacts intuitively with the graphic user interface. The touch-control buttons integrated into the steering wheel in the E-Class are a world first that allow the driver to control systems using finger swipes while keeping both hands on the wheel. Instead of having to lean and look to one side or the other, the driver can keep both eyes fixed on the road ahead.
Are we getting close to accident-free driving?
That is our goal. Protecting road users has been in the DNA of Mercedes-Benz ever since we started designing cars. The number of accident victims has already decreased dramatically. Digitization will ensure that the toll will fall to almost zero, thanks to automated driving and a range of driver assistance and information systems.
When will you reach zero?
If I had my way, it would be yesterday. But our success also depends on external factors such as traffic regulations and infrastructure.
What is your department doing to help bring about automated driving?
One of the keys to enabling driverless cars is access to high-resolution road maps and street atlases. That is why a consortium made up of Daimler AG, Audi and BMW recently bought the mapping service Nokia Here. We are working on ways to harness that data for automated driving.
What message do you have for customers who fear that this new technology is set to take away a little piece of their freedom?
As with every new technology, I think it will take time to adjust. Automated driving still faces a few significant challenges. First, in terms of technology it has to function flawlessly. And secondly, if customers are to feel comfortable with the new technology, we have to earn their trust, which is also a question of user experience: How can the driver be sure that the car is better at observing and scanning the traffic environment than he does himself? Well, one way would be by enabling the system to inform the driver that it has identified a hazardous situation two blocks away.
Are you working toward eventually doing away with the steering wheel altogether?
No, I think the driver will always want a choice. First thing in the morning, you will probably be happy to let the car do the driving, while you quietly write e-mails or chat with your children on the school run. But on a Sunday when the sun is shining, you may prefer to sit at the wheel for a family trip into the mountains. Automated driving is set to broaden our range of options, not limit them.
TRUE SOURCE OF LIGHT
Digitization, it is said, is already revolutionizing every aspect of our lives – mobility and car design included. So first impressions of the new E-Class come as something of a surprise. For although the car is most definitely a product of the Internet age – a digital native equipped with world firsts and cutting-edge technology – the view from the elegantly upholstered driver’s seat is not one of a world in upheaval, but of serenity, elegance and safety. Everything about the car suggests it has been worked on by a team of upholsterers and master cabinetmakers rather than IT specialists. For in its new E-Class, Mercedes-Benz has achieved something remarkable: Perhaps for the first time, the feeling you get from behind the wheel of the sedan is that the digital revolution is over.
Design plays a key role in this, both inside and out. High tech is embedded in the interior in such a way as to make it seem entirely organic. A common glass cover hides two optional high-resolution displays, each with a 31-centimetre-diagonal screen. It is as if a very large, very elegant smartphone is afloat in a landscape of leather – subtly illuminated by 64-colour LED-enhanced ambience lighting, which the driver can personalize at will. There is even a choice of styles for the design of on-screen instruments and graphics: “Classic,” “Sports” or “Progressive.” By placing a smartphone in the cradle of the centre console, the driver is connected at the touch of a button via COMAND Online to the external antenna and hands-free system. At the same time, an inductive charging system supplies the phone battery with a cordless recharge.
The steering wheel is another great example of how organically the digital technology is embedded in the new E-Class, its four spokes featuring integrated touch-control buttons for the first time. About two square centimetres in size, the touch-sensitive buttons allow the entire infotainment system to be controlled by means of vertical and horizontal finger swipes. Thus the driver can keep both hands on the wheel at all times and both eyes on the road – and the steering wheel is restored to its rightful role as the car’s key control element. However, for those who feel more comfortable with other input options, the touchpad can just as easily be operated via the COMAND controller in the centre console, or LINGUATRONIC voice control.
Out on the road, the driver is supported by a range of assistance systems that bring the prospect of fully automated driving a whole lot closer. The E-Class is equipped as an option with DRIVE Pilot. The DISTRONIC Distance Pilot not only prevents the driver from getting too close to the vehicle in front, it also enables the E-Class to automatically follow another vehicle at the appropriate distance on any type of road, up to speeds of 210 km/h. Steering Pilot also assists the driver on moderate cornering. At speeds up to 130 km/h, the system no longer has to rely on clearly visible lane markings, but can actively intervene even when markings are indistinct or completely absent, for example when navigating certain highway construction sites. The radar- and camera-based Active Lane Change Assist steers the sedan toward a preselected lane to execute an overtaking manoeuvre, for example. Should traffic begin to slow, the brakes are applied automatically and until such time as the way ahead is clear.
The new E-Class sets benchmarks not just in terms of design, interior and digital capabilities, but also with its engines and suspension. The E-Class is the only car in its segment to feature multi-chamber air suspension. AIR BODY CONTROL not only regulates vehicle height, it also controls suspension comfort at the front and rear axles. Initially, the sedan is offered with a four-cylinder gasoline engine that uses the standard 9G-TRONIC nine-speed automatic transmission. Other engine types are in the pipeline – from six-cylinder units to plug-in hybrid variants.
Although the new E-Class is something special, it remains a typical Mercedes-Benz: The technology is intelligent, the design emotional. It is as if the two are made for one another. Perhaps digitization has not changed everything after all.