While the German automaker talks up its rolling Facebook platform, serious alternative-vehicle research is going on behind the scenes.
LAS VEGAS—In its keynote showcase at CES, Mercedes-Benz emphasized advances in telematics, which is seemingly turning its automobiles—like those of its competitors—into rolling social-media platforms. However, off the show floor, Daimler researchers interviewed by EE Times told a potentially more impactful story of research which could ultimately deliver serious weight reductions and range boosts for electric vehicles.
The keynote speech was given Tuesday (Jan. 10) by Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz. Zetsche became famous in the U.S. a decade ago as "Dr. Z," the star of television commercials for Chrysler Corp., which Daimler owned at the time.
At CES, Zetsche turned his Teutonic charisma to the task of marketing what he called the next level of auto mobility. That would be Daimler's telematics system, called mbrace2, which is making its first appearance in Mercedes' new SL, and will soon become standard on all its U.S. models.
Billed as cloud based, mbrace2 uses Daimler's Vehicle Backend Server to continuously stream navigation information to the car, and to enable connectivity to social media sites such as Facebook. In the other direction, it'll send real-time automotive diagnostics back to the dealer.
On a marketing basis, it's billed as a "digital lifestyle" solution which can function as a "personal concierge." That will allow parents to track what their kids are doing with the car, search on Google, and perform other common Internet-era functions.
However, beyond such low-hanging consumer fruit, Zetsche alluded to more serious applications which will be possible via the continued uptick in embedded automotive smarts. "We're working on a new generation of vehicles that serve as digital companions," he says. Proactively offering consumers entertainment is a big part of that, but so are weather and road-condition advisories for drivers' planned trips.
Mercedes-Benz Chairman Dieter Zetsche during his keynote address at CES Tuesday.
Lest consumers construe modern vehicles as electronics platforms with engines and transmissions thrown in as after thoughts, Zetsche responds with the view that telematics will lead to improved safety. "We use the Web to manage huge amounts of data traffic," he says, "So why not use it also to manage huge amounts of road traffic?"
Such data sifting would include analysis of GPS data from smartphones to identify traffic hot spots and thus shunt drivers around delays. It could also encompass collision avoidance technology. "It's still key to make the car as safe as possible, so we are pursuing the vision of an accident-free car," Zetsche says.
While in-car electronics dominated Mercedes' public message, engineers involved with the company's research and development operation told EE Times that there's ample work going on behind the scenes to advance both safety and alternative power-train technologies.
Carbon-fiber composites, which are playing a major role in aerospace due to their heavy use in Boeing's new Dreamliner, are currently too expensive for extensive automotive use. (High-end electric car maker Fisker uses composites in its vehicles.) A Mercedes researcher said he believes the accelerating use of composites will result in reduced cost of manufacturing, and that carbon fiber will begin permeating the automotive sector.
It'll be a long time, if ever, before all-composite cars are common. However, even limited use of composites can result in weight reduction. The latter is important because lighter cars can run longer. For plug-in electrics, that's significant because "range anxiety" has been the biggest consumer stumbling block.
Looming even larger has been the lack of Moore's Law-like advances in battery technology. Storage capacities and energy densities of electric car batteries have advanced little in the past decade. Lithium-ion remains at the cutting, even as its drain time and range remains stagnant. Contrary to commonplace thinking that batteries are likely to remain forever stalled, the Mercedes researcher believes advances will ultimately come from experiments with new chemical formulations.