Mercedes hits CES with autonomous minibus, new CLA Coupe, and a dollop of cringe
Mercedes-Benz has made two world premieres in a cringeworthy presentation at CES: its new CLA coupe, complete with mood-reading technology, and a jazzy-looking 12-person autonomous pod concept called the Vision Urbanetic, complete with interactive exterior lighting.
Mercedes went for a combination of blue-sky evangelism and Pixar-level cutesiness for its 18-minute presentation at CES. It started out with a bluntly fake three-and-a half-minute tear-jerking video in which several different couples were "surprised" to discover their car's voice assistant was prepared to perform a marriage ceremony for them as they drove around Vegas.
"This is a feature we should really think about for the future," beamed Ola Kallenius, Daimler board member, before a quick, almost cursory discussion of the company's Vision Urbanetic, a self-driving people carrier with 12 seats, a 360-degree slim mini-display, and a design with so much swoopy pizazz that it could easily be repurposed as a basketball shoe.
Vision Urbanetic envisages future autonomous transport as a network of self-driving minibuses that constantly plot and re-plot their routes to suit the needs of a shifting group of passengers and transportable goods. The exterior is designed to indicate to non-robotic road users that the van can "see" them, giving pedestrians the confidence, for example, to cross the road in front of one of these things, or letting a cyclist know they've been seen.
From there, after a brief mention of the EQC electric SUV, it was time to move on to the new CLA coupé, "the most emotional vehicle in its class" and a "best-of compilation" featuring the company's latest and greatest tech innovations for the road.
Longer, wider and "more grown up" than the previous CLA, the new model has an improved coefficient of drag close to what a lycra-kitted cyclist might enjoy. That, in combination with a decently efficient 225-hp, 4-cylinder gasoline engine and 7G-DCT dual clutch transmission, keeps fuel consumption down around 6.3 l/100km (37.3 mpg).
But the focus here is on what happens inside the car, with Mercedes looking to expand its MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User eXperience) voice and gesture control system to new heights. The system is learning, Mercedes says, to deal with more and more questions and requests in natural language. The examples provided include: "Hey Mercedes, I'm looking for an Asian restaurant in Las Vegas. No sushi, but with at least a four star rating," and "Hey Mercedes, what's the fat content of avocados?"
So far, so Alexa. But, to continue with what seems to be emerging as a key trend in 2019, MBUX also wants to keep track of your mood. This it achieves by interfacing with a smartwatch – either the new Mercedes-branded Vivoactive 3, or another compatible unit from Garmin – to track things like your heart rate and how much sleep you had last night.
Once it knows how you're doing, the Energizing Coach function can kick in to help brighten up your day if it thinks you're stressed out or tired, by changing the interior lighting, musical mood, air con and heating, as well as initiating a massage through units built into the seat.
It's unclear what's driving this trend, whether there's research that shows this kind of thing can actually elevate mood, or indeed whether you'd benefit just as much from a nice massage and soft music if you weren't stressed to begin with. But it sure seems like stress and emotion management is something car manufacturers want to be keenly aware of.
Eventually, it was time for the reveal. The crowning moment of the presentation. The public's first look at the latest model of a car that's sold three quarters of a million units, from a premium manufacturer whose proud history stretches back nearly 140 years to the stunning invention of the first gasoline-powered automobile.
To see how Mercedes' marketing team chose to do it, skip to 10:30 in the video below. We have no words. If anyone can help elucidate who Mercedes thinks it's talking to, and what it feels it might achieve by something like this, please help us out in the comments section.