Mon, Feb 05, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Daimler takes on Silicon Valley with high-tech dashboard system in A-Class

Reuters, AMSTERDAM

Daimler AG’s new Mercedes A-Class, unveiled on Friday, includes the German automaker’s own machine-learning and voice recognition technology in one of the industry’s boldest attempts so far to take on Silicon Valley’s finest.

The Mercedes “MBUX” dashboard system, which is to be rolled out across the lineup, is about as capable at understanding what you say — and more importantly what you mean — as Amazon.com Inc’s Alexa, Apple Inc’s Siri or Alphabet Inc’s Google Assistant.

Its debut comes as automakers are embroiled in a tech arms race, raising questions about the ultimate profitability of new services that often duplicate those available on smartphones.

Daimler itself on Thursday said this year’s profit growth would be dampened by tech investment.

Automakers, especially premium manufacturers, are resisting the encroachment of tech giants on several fronts including autonomous driving and connected services — whose commercial potential multiplies with voice recognition and assistance.

“It’s fine to have Google or Amazon voice apps sitting alongside the main one, but no car company wants the voice activation that controls the air con to be Alexa,” said Mike Ramsey, a Detroit-based analyst with tech research firm Gartner Inc.

The Daimler system “narrows the gap with tech,” Ramsey said. “If it works as advertised, Mercedes will have set a new standard and given hope to other automakers that they can build a voice interface that actually works like Siri or Google.”

Mercedes is updating its A-Class with a new look, new engines, a roomier interior and semi-autonomous driving features that can help pilot the car in highway traffic.

However, its biggest draw is the MBUX system, presented on two large horizontal touch-screens that dispense entirely with dashboard instruments.

It uses artificial intelligence to make sense of commands and even anticipate them by learning the preferences and habits of up to eight different users. Spoken instructions can command everything from navigation to infotainment.

Daimler hopes that customers already used to voice assistants will not miss Siri or Alexa when they climb aboard and must remember to preface requests with “Hey, Mercedes” instead.

The A-Class could be a test of whether automakers can make bespoke voice assistants a selling point that customers are prepared to pay more for.

Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche rebuffed that idea.

“We’ve tested it already,” he told reporters at the Amsterdam launch. “We don’t test on our customers.”

Unlike its cloud-based rivals, available only when online, the Mercedes assistant uses embedded software from Nuance Communications Inc, a Massachussets-based voice recognition specialist, to continue functioning when data connections fail.

Mercedes declined to say whether the current A-Class starting price of 24,000 euros (US$30,000) would rise with the new model.

However, its profitability will, Zetsche said, citing that saving had been found among the model’s mechanical components to offset higher tech spending.

Major technology giants are pushing harder for dashboard space. Apple’s CarPlay mirroring service includes Siri and is now available on more than 200 vehicle models, while a three-year effort by Amazon has placed Alexa in Ford Motor Co’s and Toyota Motor Corp’s cars.

Suppliers are also jostling. At the CES tech show in Las Vegas, Panasonic Corp showcased an upgraded infotainment system based on Google software, allowing drivers to use voice commands to pull up directions or access some vehicle controls.

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