Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler, the world’s largest maker of luxury cars, was a Tesla shareholder from 2009 to 2014, but it’s only now imitating its former investment by replacing its traditional instrument panels with touchscreens. Eleven years after Apple introduced its first iPhone and almost six years after Tesla started selling its luxury Model S, which has two screens, the German carmaker has now unveiled a new instrument panel at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.
Perhaps because of the German habit of choosing prudence over innovation, Mercedes’ late move heralds a new era, saying goodbye to the often analog buttons and gauges of traditional Mercedes instrument panels. In the press release announcing the new feature, the company itself speaks of “a revolution in the cockpit.” The new dashboard, which will first become available in spring in its compact A-Class vehicles, carries two displays, including a touchscreen as well as touch-control buttons on the steering wheel.
Drivers can also control virtually all functions by voice, waking the on-board computer with the words, with “Hey, Mercedes.” The car will reply, “Speak now please” to signal its readiness and waking memories of David Hasselhoff and his speaking car KITT in the television series Knight Rider, albeit without the turbo boost wings and rocket launchers.
The digital panels will also include a touchpad, which recognizes handwriting, and an augmented reality feature, which can superimpose navigational information on top of live images. The displays run on Nvidia graphics chips previously only used in video games, Mercedes-Benz said. The company has even designed its own operating system, called MBUX, to run all the new features. The acronym stands for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, which is designed to adapt to the driver’s needs and habits, according to Mercedes.
“Carmakers find it difficult to adapt to this new world.”
“Hey Mercedes, how much will the new instrument panel cost?” No answer as of yet but it will become available in three versions across all of Mercedes-Benz’s vehicles, including its top-of-the-line S-Class. “It is of the utmost importance to the whole company,” said Ola Källenius, Daimler’s board member responsible for research and development. “We can relax, read or be entertained (in the car). Infotainment will become ever more important.”
The touchscreens are designed to do more than just keep riders connected and entertained. They are also intended to help drivers pilot their cars as they become increasingly complex. “Smartphones have changed customers’ expectations,” said Renee Stephens, a car expert at J.D. Power. “Carmakers find it difficult to adapt to this new world.”
Although Daimler is late to the display dashboard game, it has also benefitted from hesitating before rolling out new technologies. Just ask Ford, which was one of the first carmakers to introduce a program that connected a cellphone to its cars. The system, called Sync, didn’t work properly after its launch, dinging the Detroit car company’s reputation in quality surveys.
In just a couple more months, consumers will be able to judge the Mercedes dashboards on their own. Or, if MBUX has the same dry wit that Mr. Hasselhoff had to endure from KITT, the car just might do the judging all by itself.