Hey Mercedes!

Words Nipun Chopra

AI has made its way into automobiles, with the much-loved German manufacturer showing how it’s done

We live in a world full of digital assistants with the big tech companies harnessing artificial intelligence to make our lives easier. Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa, Google has the Google Assistant and Apple has Siri. Arguably, Google’s Assistant is the smartest one out there, proved in multiple tests to come out top and AI has quickly made its way into everything from speakers to TVs to coffee machines and even printers but what about the humble automobile? Let us face it. If AI was going to land in a car, chances were that it was going to be one of the German big three that were going to do it and so it is no surprise that Mercedes has shown the way. Mercedes engineers definitely had their work cut out when building a new system, after the old command was generally hailed as a poor system with complicated menus and a poor user interface and often behind those systems offered by its rivals BMW and Audi.

Their efforts have clearly paid off. Enter MBUX, a brand new Mercedes-Benz User Interface System built from the ground up that replaces its current command system and from the demos so far looks like Mercedes have blown any other infotainment system out of the water, including BMW who have always led the way, with their iDrive system often hailed as the best there is out there. It’s a learning smart connected system built upon a powerful NVIDIA GPU and appears to be a pleasure to use. The interface seems buttery smooth and the touchscreen  as responsive as a high-end smartphone’s, but the cherry on the cake is the way the system handles speech and commands.

Gone are the days of generic commands like “phone book” or “please dial”; you simply say the phrase “Hey Mercedes” followed by what you want the car to do and the system uses natural speech to identify what you want it to do. For e.g. saying “Hey Mercedes, I’m cold” will trigger a response whereby the car will automatically make the cabin temperature warmer by 2 degrees, or you could even ask the system if you should wear sandals next week and it will bring up the appropriate weather forecast ! It can even carry out functions like changing the ambient light in the car or playing your favorite music. The system also learns what you do over time, and for example if you visit a certain place every day, the car’s navigation will automatically it up for you at that time every day.

If you ring your wife on  your commute back from work every day it will suggest you do that every time you drive home from work – saving you from grief at home and earning you a few brownie points! The system can also recognize 23 languages and complex language commands. Kudos to Mercedes for quickly realizing that if it wanted to move away from its old man image and attract a younger crowd it had to connect with them at their level, harnessing the latest technology, and looks like they’ve masterfully pulled that off. It remains to be seen how good the system is going to be in the real world but the demos look promising. The MBUX system launches in the new A-Class that goes on sale later this year and will follow in every new Mercedes after that. I think a revolution in in-car infotainment systems is coming, and if this is what the first AI based system looks like, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.       


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