The new MBUX infotainment system is the best on the planet. Period.
While the fourth generation Mercedes A-Class will officially bow at Geneva in March, we were invited to ride shotgun in a pre-production test car during the CES in Las Vegas last week. This gave us the chance to road test the new MBUX infotainment system as well. Despite being wrapped in visually disruptive camouflage, the overall shape and proportions of the new A-Class are pretty clear, and for packaging reasons it remains similar to the outgoing model.
But in line with design chief Gorden Wagener’s move towards removing excess lines from surfaces, the new car loses the dramatic sweeping swage line that was a distinguishing mark of the outgoing model. The newly minted A-Class will be powered by updated versions of the existing turbocharged four-cylinder gas and diesel engines. While the Mercedes engineers I rode with would not be drawn on their power outputs, it is likely that any increases will be modest, with the emphasis on gains in whole vehicle efficiency through mechanical optimization, weight reduction, and aerodynamic refinement.
As we drove around Las Vegas I noted the low levels of road and mechanical noise, which revealed just how sophisticated the latest compact Mercedes is as an entry-level product representing the three-pointed star. In terms of cabin space, small gains have been made, and I noticed that the 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) tall engineer in the rear seat behind the 5 ft 10 in (1.8 m) driver seemed to have just enough headroom not to be hunched forward. However, the real star of the new A-Class is the MBUX sixth generation infotainment system. As Sajjad Khan, VP of Digital & Mobility at Daimler later explained, “The system had to feature the simplest user interface that would enable a person to find anything within one or two steps.
In addition, the safest and most natural way to interact with the car on the move is speech, and we have taken this to a whole new level. The MBUX system took us two and a half years to create and develop, and we started by asking ourselves what the USPs for our customers should be, and from there we identified three critical areas. First of all, the system had to feature the simplest user interface that would enable a person to find anything within one or two steps. Next, it had to be intelligent, which is where recent advances in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and deep learning come in.
This also gives it the chance to be personalized, so upon entering the car, it can adapt the seats, lights, audio, and other features to the individual preferences of you or your wife. However, AI is the real star of the system in the way it powers the speech control aspect of MBUX,” Sajjad says. “The safest and most natural way to interact with the car on the move is speech, and we have taken this to a whole new level, using AI and deep learning to not only look into the context of your query, but also take into account your patterns and behavior. The system is thus able to answer your request in a context related way.”
To put this to the test, my driver, a Mercedes development engineer, started by saying “Hey, Mercedes.” A female voice replied, “Speak now please.” “Is it raining tomorrow?” the driver asked next. “It is very unlikely it will rain in Clark tomorrow, with temperatures between 45 and 63 degrees,” came the detailed reply. The linchpin of the AI and deep learning Key Word Activation without buttons has been programmed with Multiple key words, so you can say “Hello, Mercedes”, “Hey, Mercedes”, and in the US just “Mercedes.” Naturally, different key words will be used in other countries.
What surprised me apart from the detailed answer was the system’s use of a very natural speech pattern. The engineer did not give a direct instruction like “Show me the weather forecast,” yet the AI understood his colloquially phrased question to be a request for tomorrow’s weather. MBUX also allows you to access most of the vehicle functions such as temperature, defrosting, seat heating, headlights, and so on by voice. It will also give you control over the Ambient light if your car is an E or S-Class with this feature. Thus you would say something like “Set ambient light to blue or red.”
I tried the system for myself and said “Hey, Mercedes.” “Yes please,” said the AI voice. “Set defrost to on.” “Defrost is on,” came the reply. Apart from the AI voice interface, the MBUX infotainment suit also features a new touchpad on the center console onto which you can trace alphabets with your finger as before. You can also use the big touchscreen or the touch panels on the steering wheel first seen on the E-Class. Next the engineer showed me the telephone mode.
“Hey, Mercedes please call Miguel,” he said. This time I noticed that he did not wait for the AI to reply and completed his instruction without the dialogue step. Once you are used to the system you learn to use this “voice barge in” to save time and cut out that extra step. You can also write text messages with speech. “Hey, Mercedes, send a text message to Miguel,” said the engineer. “Hi Miguel, I am currently in Las Vegas.” This then appears on the screen. However, if you create a lengthy text whilst driving, for safety reasons it will be hidden until you come to a stop. And once your speed exceeds 5 mph it disappears again.
Flicking through radio stations on the move is very distracting and the voice activation once again removes this. So if for instance, you use the media control and say “Hey, Mercedes, play radio station Air One,” or play the songs of a certain artist, the system will find and play your selection. The sat-nav system is makes full use of the 1,920 x 720 HD screen resolution and the 3D map renderings are very fine. You can also zoom in and rotate images on the screen with your fingers. The system is also enabled for ‘what3words’, which is used via a free mobile app or online map. ‘what3words divides the world into a grid of 3 m x 3 m squares and assigned each one a unique address so navigation is more precise than ever.
Traditional street addresses are not always suitable for voice entry, there being vagueness with say 15 and 50. In some places like London or Mexico city, many streets have the same name, which adds to the confusion. But if you have the three word name of your target spot, then there will be no more confusion as to whether your friend is waiting at the north, south, east or west entrance to the shopping mall, as the navigation system will take you literally to within 3 meters of the correct spot. Using ‘what3words’ you can navigate to any address in the country you are currently in, in this case the USA, as well as countries next door like Canada or Mexico.
I said, “Hey, Mercedes navigate to Vancouver aquarium,” and the AI immediately asked if I wanted to start now. MBUX also has a global search feature, which means the system does not require menus. “So for instance, if I input ‘Ola’ into the system, it will show several options,” Sajjad explained. “Ola is a city in in Arkansas, it is also the name of my boss, Ola Kaellenius, whom I can call on the phone if I want, and if there is ‘Ola’ is found on the Internet it will also be shown. Thus, that one word will give me options in satellite-navigation, telephone and so on, which means I don’t have to go into a specific menu to search.”
“We also worked on the integration of connected features, so that commonly used Internet-based providers such as Yelp, Google, Apple Carplay and so on can be accessed,” he said. As a final test for the AI I said, “Hey, Mercedes, I’m hungry.” The system immediately placed a list of local restaurants on the screen and said, “Please select an entry.” The AI and deep learning ability means that the system will even comprehend indirect speech such as “I’m hungry,” as opposed to “list restaurants in the area”. As a bonus it even gives you their opening hours and prices. Every system is of its period, relying on enabling technologies existing at the time.
MBUX relies on the cutting edge graphic controllers developed in close collaboration with NVIDIA. “At the 2107 CES, NVIDIA CEO, Jensen Wang and I announced that within the next 12 months we would put something amazing on the street, Sajjad recalls.“We were well into the project by then and were confident we would be able to deliver within the following 12 months. The graphics controller and the power of NVIDIA’s Parker chip, which delivers up to 1.5 teraflops of performance for deep learning-based self-driving AI cockpit systems. This is between 50 and 100-percent more performance than other mobile processors.”
When it comes to updates, the completely cloud based MBUX system features both on-board and off-board connectivity and has enough headroom in the on-board module’s computing power to run updates. Mercedes is very keen to get customers feedback from owners of the new A-Class and already has a few new ideas they are working on based on feedback from customer clinics. “Some of these idea can be partially incorporated into this system, which has some headroom for updates,” says Sajjad. “However, other things will have to wait for the next generation system. We can update software in 3 months, and electronics in two years.
This shows the different, faster speed of development at Mercedes now compared to a few years ago. Daimler has invested heavily into research on AI and deep learning,” Sajjad continued. "We have our own specialist teams in Sunnyvale, California, China, and of course Stuttgart. We have seen dramatic improvements in speech recognition in different languages, and at this point in time MBUX can cope with 23 languages. Our teams came up with the algorithms to make full use of the available computing power and speech advancement we have achieved with deep learning, and our software developers put it all together to enable the MBUX system you see today.”
In the old days, the most advanced technology always debuted in flagship models, with the rest of the range then enjoying the trickle down effect. The MBUX will immediately appeal to the younger, more computer savvy generation who are the biggest A-Class buyers. But there is no question that the simple and intuitive interface will quickly gain appreciation by older customers normally wary of high-tech features. From where I stand, MBUX is the kind of surprise and delight feature that only comes along once in a blue moon, and is one truly worthy of the world’s oldest and most innovative car manufacturer. “What we came up with is the hottest and coolest infotainment operating system ever,” says Daimler’s design chief, Gorden Wagener.