Gavin Green, Mark Wal­ton and Sam Smith

CAR (UK) - - Contents - While ‘Hey Gavin’ will prompt him into ac­tion, he prefers a more for­mal greet­ing

HEY MERCEDES! It seems puerile – don’t you think? – to slip be­hind the wheel of a car wear­ing the three-pointed star, prob­a­bly still the most dis­tin­guished badge in mo­tor­ing, and say ‘Hi’ to your Mercedes-Benz. Does Lewis Hamil­ton salute his F1 W09 racer with ‘Hey Mercedes’? Did Moss have a nat­ter with his 300 SLR be­fore the ’55 Mille Miglia? I have owned five sturdy Benz es­tates – a breed of car I like – and I have never spo­ken to any of them. We have hap­pily com­mu­ni­cated by touch, not speech.

Yet that is the greet­ing that un­locks voice-ac­ti­vated won­ders in the new A-Class. With its clever mul­ti­me­dia in­ter­face, the new A may just be as sig­nif­i­cant in the long-term de­vel­op­ment of the car as the Mercedes 260D (the first pro­duc­tion diesel car), the W116 S-Class (the first car with elec­tronic ABS), the 300 SL (pi­o­neered di­rect petrol in­jec­tion), or any other in­no­va­tive Benz.

‘Hey Mercedes’ ac­ti­vates the com­pany’s new step-ahead in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem. It’s like an ad­vanced car equiv­a­lent of Ama­zon’s Alexa or Ap­ple’s Siri. Just as im­pres­sive, it’s of­fered not on Mercedes’ top mod­els but, rather, makes its de­but on its cheap­est: it’s stan­dard on the new A-Class. The Benz top brass clearly think younger A-Classers will ap­pre­ci­ate these ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gent niceties more than old geezers who ride in S-Classe. (It’ll ‘fil­ter up’ to other Ben­zes later.)

Jump into a new A, greet your hum­ble lit­tle hatch and you’re sud­denly in­struct­ing the nav, phone, cli­mate, light­ing and au­dio con­trols. You can talk nor­mally, not like the ro­bot in Lost in Space or like Arnie in The Ter­mi­na­tor. It self-learns, can com­mu­ni­cate warn­ings to other cars, read-out and write your mes­sages, and check your cal­en­dar. Soon, you’ll be able to or­gan­ise car-shar­ing with mates. The graph­ics are great.

The new A is per­fect for those who hate to drive and love to fid­dle with their phones (so, most un­der-35s). It’s a giant iPhone or Sam­sung Gal­axy on wheels. It’s con­nected to the world and is a semi-au­ton­o­mous dullard to drive (though highly ca­pa­ble). This, dear reader, is prob­a­bly the car of the fu­ture.

And it’s sig­nif­i­cant in an­other area, too: this in­ter­face pre­views the new re­la­tion­ship we’ll ‘en­joy’ with our cars.

Cars of the fu­ture will not pol­lute and they will drive them­selves – de­vel­op­ments thought unimag­in­able just a decade ago. Elec­tric mo­tors will mean no more tune­ful twin-cam fours, smooth straight-sixes or thun­der­ing V8s. Mercedes’s elec­tric mo­tors will be in­dis­tin­guish­able, in sound and be­hav­iour, from BMW’s or Re­nault’s or Ford’s.

Plus, as cars be­gin to drive them­selves, we all be­come pas­sen­gers. How does this af­fect BMW’s ‘ul­ti­mate driv­ing ma­chine’ ethos or Mercedes’ big-bud­get F1/Lewis tie-up, or Ford’s or Alfa’s or Mazda’s driver-fo­cused phi­los­o­phy?

The up­shot of elec­tric mo­tors and au­ton­o­mous drive is that cars may be­come com­modi­tised – a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect for car bosses and mar­ket­ing types, ob­sessed with build­ing brands and im­bu­ing cars with char­ac­ter. Plus, if we’re us­ing new-fan­gled ‘mo­bil­ity ser­vices’, why should con­sumers care whether they’re be­ing robo-chauf­feuered by Mercedes, Mon­deo or Mazda? Do you care whether you fly by Air­bus or Boe­ing? Do you shun the MAN dou­ble-decker to Toot­ing, hop­ing the next bus will be a Volvo? Do you re­ject the Uber Zafira, hop­ing you’ll get a Prius? No, no and no again. When it comes to ‘mere’ trans­port, we’re nearly all brand-ag­nos­tic.

‘Hey Mercedes’ pre­views a new man/ma­chine rap­port. Mercedes-Benz and many other car mak­ers be­lieve the car’s ‘per­son­al­ity’ may morph from driv­ing ma­chine to that of friendly trans­port ro­bot. The new A-Class is your friend: talk to it, ask it to call your friends or guide you to your des­ti­na­tion. In the fu­ture, it will even drive you, au­tonomously.

To­day’s car is still hap­pily like a mo­torised horse and cart. You ride it, you’re in con­trol. It growls and snorts and en­ter­tains with its mo­tion and move­ment; it needs love and care, sym­pa­thy and skill to mas­ter. It’s more pet than ap­pli­ance. The car of 2030 will be a dy­namic droid, more an­thro­po­mor­phic than to­day’s ve­hi­cles. But – and there’s the rub for you and me – it’ll be nowhere near as in­volv­ing, or as re­ward­ing, to op­er­ate.

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