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CES: Mercedes levels up infotainment tech

Speech therapy: Mercedes-Benz has said it plans to replace tactile buttons with voice commands in the future.

Voice recognition, AI, powerful computing underpin Mercedes’ next-gen in-car systems

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Mercedes-Benz logo10 Jan 2018

By TUNG NGUYEN in LAS VEGAS

MERCEDES-BENZ has revealed its next-gen infotainment systems at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) technology set to make its production debut in the new-generation A-Class before proliferating across the entire model range.

While the look of the system – which, like the E-Class, uses two 10.0-inch high-definition digital displays integrated on a single screen – was revealed in November, the new user interface will be underpinned by deep learning and artificial intelligence that can make suggestions, such as what music to play at certain times during the day based on previous driver inputs.

Borrowing cues from smartphones, the menu sports large icons that can be scrolled vertically or horizontally, while the updated software also brings a global search function that will look for entered keywords across all vehicle functions and online.

However, the largest update to the way drivers will interact with Mercedes’ infotainment system is the introduction of a natural speech recognition software activated by the commands “Hi Mercedes”, “Hey Mercedes” or just “Mercedes”, similar to Apple’s “Hey Siri” and Google’s “Ok Google”.

In addition to the usual voice-activated functions such as calling contacts and setting satellite navigation destinations, Mercedes’ new system can also control climate control settings, ambient lighting and display weather forecasts.

It can recognise more conversational language – such as the command “I’m feeling cold” to turn up the climate control temperature – and will work across 23 different languages.

However, Daimler AG speech development engineer Christoph Rothermel told GoAuto during a ride-along of a prototype A-Class, that not all of them will sport the natural speech recognition.

“We have 23 supported languages, but not every language will use the natural language,” he said.

“We have about 13 languages which are using complete and literal speech and all the big players, for example US English, Great Britain English, German or Spanish are all natural speaking.”

Mr Rothermel said extensive examination was undertaken in each of the 10 or so languages that support natural speech recognition to ensure a large number of colloquialisms and slang words were understood.

“How it works is we specify our commands and then we do research into what is a possible natural alternative (to some words),” he said.

“The bigger (the alternative word list), the more natural the system.

“And therefore we invested a lot of time to really get everything you might have in mind to control the system.”

Although Mr Rothermel could not confirm whether the natural speech recognition system would work for Australian English, Daimler AG member of the board of management for group research and Mercedes-Benz cars development Ola Kallenius hinted to Australian journalists that the feature will work Down Under.

“It will work in all markets. But sometimes some aspects come a little later to some markets, but Australia is such an important market to us, so don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” he said.

Traditionalists however, can still use Mercedes’ touchpad controls – albeit in a sleeker updated form – found between the driver and passenger, via the 10.0-inch high-definition touchscreen interface or with steering wheel-mounted touchpads to navigate through menus.

Third-party app integration is also a feature, with review services Yelp and TripAdvisor announced for respective restaurant and hotel ratings tied into navigation data at launch.

Mr Kallenius said to expect more apps to arrive on the MBUX system in the years to come – via a dedicated app store – although only if they can fit into Mercedes’ sleek software design aesthetic.

“We shall see how that develops, right now we have decided to do that in a more targeted way,” he said.

“We’re obviously looking at ‘what are the ecosystems that the customers like the most’ those we will prioritise.

“We don’t want to clutter it … the beauty of the system, in a way, is in its simplicity. If you clutter, you have driver distraction, it gets cumbersome and so on, it needs to stay clean and focused.

“In some cases, we will of course push content and in some other cases it will be like an app store where you can buy content.”

Underpinning the system is a six-core processor, 8GB DDR4 RAM and an Nvidia Panther 128 graphics processing unit which is able to render car animations in real time such as showing light activation and bootlid position, while also enabling the output of more detailed map imagery.

As for the operating system software, Mercedes is promising constant over-the-air updates – some free and some that will come with a charge – that will be able to add more features to MBUX in the future.

However, to ensure the wirelessly transmitted data cannot be hacked, Mercedes is using a cryptographic signature with the additional security of TLS (transport layer security).

“A very, very big priority, especially if you go over the air … because you want to make sure that every protocol you have when you communicate with the car from the outside is as secure as it can possibly be,” Mr Kallenius said.

The new infotainment system will also be compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, giving users the choice of their preferred controls, although only the Mercedes system will integrate across various vehicle functions.

“We believe a fully integrated experience where every aspect of the car is done in one holistic way, that is the best experience,” Mr Kallenius said.

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