Mercedes-Benz customers and the motor industry were given a view into the technological direction being taken by the premium car maker at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Automotive Industries (AI) was there, and asked Prof. Bharat Balasubramanian – vice president product Innovations and process technologies at Daimler what key issues other than green technologies and emission control are influencing the future of the automobile.
Balasubramanian: I think we have two other very key issues. One is the inclusion of driver assistance systems, including autonomous driving, and the second area will be “digital lifestyle”- adding premium connectivity and infotainmant to the driving experience of the customer.
AI: Will new media will have a central role in tomorrow’s car?
Balasubramanian: Yes. It is very much a central role for the simple reason of the digital lifestyle. People are so used to using their smartphones for a variety of applications besides normal telephoning that they will demand this type of interaction in the vehicle.
AI: What possibilities do you see for Daimler in the areas of connectivity and infotainment?
Balasubramanian: We have a vision called “@ your COMAND” which focuses on four areas – sensory perfection, seamless experience, natural handling, and remote convenience. Because of constant connectivity with the Cloud, the driver has seamless access to all the media he or she normally uses. We have data transferring from your telephone to our Daimler vehicle backend server, which prepares the content for you in such a way that you do not experience any driver distraction. The tedious synchronization of different communication and entertainment devices is also completely eliminated. There are a lot of features that you can have including Facebook, Twitter, Google Panoramia, etc. This is a very powerful feature because it lets you upgrade your content on the fly. Every six months to one year we will be introducing new services. Many of them will be free of charge.
The other feature that we will be introducing also in the context of driver distraction is offering much more natural interaction with the head unit and connectivity. We are showcasing some of these technologies in the F 125!. One is gesture recognition. If you are sitting in the rear seat looking at the TV monitor you can scroll, you can pause, you can select the program that you want. Similarly, on the driver’s side, we have a special touch pad that not only recognizes touch but also your gesture for up to 20mm above the pad.
The third area of gesture recognition is the opening and closing of the doors of the F 125! You open it with the swipe of you hand upwards and you close it with a swipe downwards and if you want to stop the door at some point you just press your hand forward. Inside the vehicle, the instrument panel generates a 3-D picture. We have cameras analyzing the position of your face so you don’t need special 3-D-spectacles. If you move your head the system automatically adjusts the stereoscopic picture for your position and then you can integrate multi layered information three dimensionally into a rich visual experience.
AI: How is the innovation process structured at Daimler?
Balasubramanian: We always analyze global trends and what the competition are doing, benchmark it, and then create special focus areas where we generate innovation. Current focus areas include the road to emission-free mobility – we are an innovation leader here – the road to accident-free driving, and infotainment and connectivity. Beyond that, we also do a lot of work in lighting technology, in aluminum, and carbon fiber. Almost 80% of the innovations have some form of electronics but on the materials side you do not need it. In our light weight strategy we have the full aluminum body for the AMG SLS. For the SLS E-CELL it is a mixture of carbon fiber for the battery case coupled with aluminum space frame structure
How important is supplier innovation for Mercedes?
Balasubramanian: We have very close relationship with our key suppliers. In some areas we generate the innovations together with them – generally the idea for the system integration and functionality comes from us. The suppliers also generate ideas on the cost side – how to get the cost down to acceptable level to the final customer. It is a joint effort and in many of these areas (especially in the safety areas), we allow the supplier to license this patent also to others, as we did with the anti-lock braking systems, ESP, air-bags, etc.
AI: What processes do you have in place to deal with quality assurance and customer expectations?
Balasubramanian: We follow customer research and trends in all big market areas closely. Above and beyond that, we have very focused and intensive testing procedures. I would think that there is no other company in the world with the range and in-depth testing that we do for all these features. That might be part of the reason that, for some innovations, someone else comes to the market earlier. We are sure that the functionality we offer works in a very wide range of use cases. When we have product on the market we closely follow customer feedback, we analyze the different countries with the help of JD Power in the US and in Germany for example.
AI: Is the future of the automobile electric or internal combustion?
Balasubramanian: I think we will see both technologies. The internal combustion engine will remain with us for many decades. We will have improvements in internal combustion technology like we are showing in the new 6- and 8- cylinder engines with direct fuel injection and lean burn solutions, multi stage charging etc. At the same time, we will have a hybridization of the drive train in various ranges – from low to high power, and finally zero emission technologies like fuel cells and full battery electric vehicles.
AI: Smart has always been a pioneer in matters of urban mobility and at Frankfurt you introduced the smart forvision concept vehicle jointly developed with BASF. What did BASF’s material and system competence bring to this project?
Balasubramanian: BASF is very strong in materials. It is an impressive example of what can be achieved by two leading companies from two different sectors working together. There are so many innovations – for example the roof of the car has got power-generating solar cells based on organic chemical dyes, and the wheel rims are made of fiber reinforced plastics saving about 3kg. The body panels and the chassis are made of special plastic components making the vehicle lighter and with a greater driving range.
What new technologies are we going to see in series production first?
Balasubramanian: New to series production is the paint, the infrared light reflecting material, and the wheel rim technology.
AI: How does the new B-class concept differ from the old one?
Balasubramanian: There are two major changes. The last generation B-Class had a sandwich floor concept, which we removed in the new one. Secondly, we changed the position of the engine and placed it in front of the front axle. This allowed us to utilize the modules and aggregates that we have in the C-Class. It’s almost the same engine designed for longitudinal and transverse mounting. Removing the sandwich floor allows us to have much more design freedom – we will have five different body versions. This is the first variant with the high seating position – not because we have a sandwich, but because there are traditional Mercedes-Benz customers who prefer the high seating position. The rest of the cars will all be coming with low seating positions. With our module strategy, we have been able to introduce into the B-Class high-end safety systems, including the forward collision warning system and collision mitigation with the help of radar systems, lane keeping assist with a mono camera, we have PRE-SAFE etc. So the things available in the E- and S-Class have been cascaded down to the B-Class. It is a major step forward to get a B-Class with all this technology.
AI: Are the new advanced technologies seen in the new SLK55 & SLS AMG Roadster exclusive only to the segment?
Balasubramanian: The SLS AMG Roadster has a full aluminum chassis and body. You’ll see something similar in the coming years on the Mercedes-Benz cars. Other than that what you see in both areas is a lot of sharing, the only difference is that AMG positions its vehicle in the very sporty corner and we are more in the area of cultured sportiness, but the technologies are very similar and shared between the two companies.
AI: What else can we expect in terms of innovation from Daimler in the future?
Balasubramanian: You can see all the innovations for the future in the F 125!. One is the new form of hydrogen storage with very small tanks with a capacity of 7.5 kg of hydrogen. The second is in the high-voltage battery, where we are talking about the next generation of lithium batteries with half to one-third in weight, compared to current technology of the same capacity. Gesture recognition, on-line speech recognition modules, 3D displays and the materials and fabrics like the ones in F 125!, Carbon fiber hybrid doors to reduce the weight. These are all in our book of innovations many of which you will see in the coming years.