Com­puter says go

Benz luxury con­cept takes us 15 years into the fu­ture

Herald Sun - Motoring - - News - CRAIG DUFF craig.duff@news.com.au

MYTH­BUSTERS uses the Alameda Naval Air Sta­tion base in San Fran­cisco to test popular ur­ban leg­ends. Mercedes-Benz is us­ing the same venue to cre­ate some.

The ve­hi­cle for Benz’s ex­per­i­ment is the F015 Luxury in Mo­tion con­cept: a mo­bile vi­sion of how we can ex­pect to op­er­ate within a car by 2030.

Op­er­ate? Yes, given driv­ing is an op­tion Mercedes doesn’t ex­pect many own­ers to take up on the daily com­mute through con­gested traf­fic.

This vi­sion fore­sees oc­cu­pants en­gag­ing in work, in­ter­act­ing with friends on­line or sim­ply re­lax­ing in the lounge-like luxury of four pod chairs as the car au­tonomously nav­i­gates to the work­place.

Hav­ing proven the fea­si­bil­ity of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing with an S500 limou­sine, Benz’s fo­cus with the F015 is to show what’s pos­si­ble be­hind the sil­vered win­dows of the al­loy be­he­moth.

“The pri­vate space and time will be­come the luxury com­modi­ties of the fu­ture,” says Mercedes re­search and sus­tain­abil­ity vice-pres­i­dent Dr Her­bert Kohler.

“This is par­tic­u­larly help­ful in sit­u­a­tions where driv­ing is more a bur­den than a plea­sure. The luxury is in the free­dom of de­ci­sion mak­ing, not just in terms of driv­ing.

“Pas­sen­gers have the op­tion to de­cide how much of the dig­i­tal world they want to bring into the car from the out­side.

“You can cre­ate your very own per­sonal retreat with vir­tual land­scape on the side dis­plays and sim­ply shut the real world away.

“It is not only a ques­tion of tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­ity, it is more in terms of so­cial ac­cep­tance. There­fore the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not limited to in­ter­nal in­ter­ac­tion be­tween man and ma­chine. It is the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion be­tween the car, the pedes­tri­ans and the traf­fic in­fra­struc­ture.”

NOT DRIV­ING

Press a but­ton on a smart­phone app to stir the hulk­ing sil­ver ma­chine into ac­tion. the LED ar­ray on the front — de­signed to mimic the di­a­mond-stud­ded grille found on cur­rent Mercedes — switches to blue, alert­ing other road users the car is in au­ton­o­mous mode (it glows white if the car is in man­ual mode).

The app lets the “driver” pre­s­e­lect the num­ber of pas­sen­gers and the F015 obliges by open­ing the cor­re­spond­ing num­ber of doors, which are hinged in such a way as to max­imise en­try space and show off the in­te­rior of the con­cept to any­one walk­ing by.

The only sound as the car eases to a stop is the whirr of com­puter fans keep­ing the pro­ces­sors cool.

One of the lim­i­ta­tions of

build­ing a fu­ture con­cept is con­jur­ing to­day’s tech­nol­ogy to mimic to­mor­row’s equip­ment. It takes a lot of com­put­ers to man­age the mul­ti­ple hi-res touch­screens mounted in the doors, along with the front in­stru­ment panel that tracks where the op­er­a­tor’s eye is fo­cus­ing and oblig­ingly high­lights the fea­ture (air­con, sat­nav, sound sys­tem) which can then be ad­justed us­ing ges­ture recog­ni­tion.

Benz re­search spe­cial­ist Klaus Miller­ferli is the des­ig­nated “driver” but as soon as we’re set­tled in the pod­shaped al­loy and leather chairs, he pushes a but­ton and swivels 180 de­grees to face the pas­sen­gers.

He reaches for the touch­screen panel, se­lects an icon and in­structs the car to “go” and then ex­plains how the ve­hi­cle can high­light friends along the route, even de­tour to pick them up and se­lect 360de­gree scenes to project on the pan­els should the view out­side the win­dows be less than en­gag­ing.

The truth, though, is this is not true au­ton­o­mous driv­ing: we’re cruis­ing along a pre­pro­grammed route us­ing GPS and multi-cam­era imag­ing to en­sure we’re within 2cm of the de­sired path.

“The only rea­son the F015 isn’t au­ton­o­mous is space: we don’t have the room to fit the in­car and out­side sen­sors,” Miller­ferli says. He says the F015 can run on pure bat­tery power or hy­dro­gen.

“This is purely elec­tric. We de­cided that way be­cause we’d have had to or­gan­ise a way to re­fuel a fuel cell ve­hi­cle and that may not be so easy in ev­ery lo­ca­tion.”

Be­ing a con­cept, al­beit a mo­bile one, also means the F015 is a touch sen­si­tive, rather than touch-sen­si­tive. It won’t come out to play in the rain, the ges­ture recog­ni­tion is limited to a panel be­tween the front seats and oc­ca­sion­ally the in-door touch­screens need more than a nor­mal flick to func­tion prop­erly.

It’s a work in progress but with 15-20 years to re­alise the goal, Benz has time to tweak mi­nor is­sues.

The ma­jor con­cerns are less tech­ni­cal than mat­ters of so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity: peo­ple have to de­velop a de­gree of trust with au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles co­ex­ist­ing with pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists in ever-con­gested cities.

The F015 is con­fig­ured to re­as­sure pedes­tri­ans it has seen them with ver­bal and vis­ual cues and can even project a laser-gen­er­ated “walk­way” on the road, while a “Slow” or “Stop” sign is dis­played in the rear LEDs to alert traf­fic be­hind that the car is stop­ping.

Benz fu­ture stud­ies and “ideation” ex­pert Alexander Mankowsky has the fi­nal word.

“The F015 shows how we can in­tro­duce ro­bots into so­ci­ety,” he says. “Cars like this one are sim­ply ma­chines that are mak­ing our lives eas­ier.

“Ul­ti­mately it is the peo­ple who are in con­trol — they set the route, the speed and de­cide if they want to de­tour. The ve­hi­cle en­ables them to do that with less stress and more re­lax­ation.

“Peo­ple will want to drive and they can con­trol the F015 if the cir­cum­stances suit them. When it doesn’t, they can oc­cupy their time with more pro­duc­tive ac­tions.”

An in­side look: Craig Duff with Benz’s space-age F015 Luxury

in Mo­tion in San Fran­cisco

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