Mercedes uses its new car to launch yet another voice assistant

Mercedes-Benz may have been one of the numerous automakers that showed up to CES to talk about voice assistants. A swath of companies came to say they’ve partnered with Amazon Alexa or added Google Assistant to their infotainment systems. But the German automaker came to Las Vegas this year to say it built its own voice assistant, along with a new user experience for drivers.

Overdoing it? Probably. But the new Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX, which is less of a mouthful) is a significant leap forward for the company’s interiors and a glimpse into the very near future for what drivers will interact with when they want to adjust the air conditioning or send text messages or find the quickest way to get out of Nevada.

It will launch this spring in the company’s compact vehicles, starting with the A-Class hatchback in Europe and followed closely by the next-generation CLA and GLA models in North America. Most other new Mercedes models will eventually adopt the system over the next two or three years.

Because this future of infotainment is so imminent, Mercedes showed us what the system would do out on the crowded Las Vegas streets on a Tuesday evening. In a somewhat disguised version of the new A-Class and with an engineer behind the wheel, I saw how the nearly production-grade version of the system worked, including the assistant that requires you to say, “Hey, Mercedes.”

“It needs to be a holistic user experience,” Ola Källenius, board member for group research and Mercedes-Benz cars development, said to a group of reporters Tuesday, underscoring Mercedes’ desire to build as unified of an experience as possible to avoid some of the inconsistencies of past third-party patchworks.

Abruptly named and spelled LINGUATRONIC by Mercedes (it’ll be called something else when it launches in US-market cars), the voice assistant is a development of systems the automaker and others have been using for nearly two decades. But in the MBUX system, it finally understands indirect speech as Alexa or Google Assistant would. Even halfway decent voice command systems today require you to give an exact temperature to set the air conditioning in a stilted, “Set driver temperature to 70 degrees,” or something similar. The driver in the A-Class simply said, “Hey Mercedes, I’m too cold,” and the ambient lighting around the air vents glowed red and raised the temperature up a couple of degrees.

Källenius said the combination of on-board and off-board setups for the Mercedes assistant are also a significant improvement not only of other in-car voice command systems, but also better than what most automakers have brought to market so far with their Amazon and Google partnerships.

A big change from Mercedes’ older infotainment system is the ability to touch, swipe and pinch-to-zoom on the screen itself. Previous iterations relied either on the voice commands, touch controls on the steering wheel, or a touchpad between the seats. Mercedes deleted the wheel, but kept all of the other ways to control inputs. That’s a lot of choice, and Källenius said that’s a good thing.

“In every new system, there’s a learning curve to all of this,” he said. “That’s why we have the redundancy built in. Personally, I like the steering wheel controls.”

But the touchscreen works extremely well, which is sometimes the preferred way to use services such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (both offered on MBUX). It’s also a great way to swipe through navigation or phone or audio menus on the home screen, or rotate and zoom on the sharp new maps Mercedes made. Audi uses Google Earth for its navigation maps. Mercedes instead used its investment in HERE to develop maps for its new infotainment system. Perhaps some users will miss the familiar look of the Google system, but the Mercedes maps are clear and have 3D graphics of buildings that are nicely detailed and look rather striking at night on the widescreen display. A two-dimensional map can also be displayed in front of the driver in place of some secondary gauges. Mercedes uses two NVIDIA chips for MBUX, depending on the vehicle’s optional equipment. However, the company insists the look of the infotainment system will be consistent across all models.

Absent from the Mercedes infotainment is gesture control, which rival BMW offers on their latest iDrive infotainment system and startup Byton showed off in their concept this week at CES. That may be a distraction too, anyway. And Mercedes’ voice assistant also has its own search agent. While asking for nearby restaurants or even more specific locations pulls up Yelp reviews and neatly integrates those selections with phone or navigation requests. Those who rely on Google or Bing for searches may feel disconcerted by the lack of those respective logos on the screen. For its part, however, Mercedes officials are willing to partner up with other companies to expand MBUX.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s an island,” Källenius said. “We’re not in competition with those systems. I see [Google and Amazon] as partners.”

So the question looms, did Mercedes need to make a new voice assistant for its new infotainment system? Maybe not for the average user. But if its goal was to make an extremely unified and natural-feeling infotainment system that didn’t feel like a voice assistant was tacked on at the last minute, then I can come to terms with saying, “Hey, Mercedes,” sometime in the future.

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