Digitization is changing vehicles’ interiors along with their other aspects. Georges Massing, director, user interaction at Mercedes-Benz, spoke with automotiveIT about the effects of the trend, the use of artificial intelligence and new assistance systems.
_Mr. Massing, it was striking at CES in Las Vegas that operating concepts have moved into the spotlight. The digital cockpit has apparently become a synonym for digitization in the automobile. Is this your view?
Yes, you can in fact get that impression. But for a good reason. Due to digitization, operating controls, the ways people interact with technology, are actually changing. What is true for the smartphone applies to the automobile as well. It is clear that digital operating elements will increasingly replace the classic mechanical functions as we know them in vehicles today. That will naturally bring new concepts into focus. The cockpit is – to put it quite simply – the main interface between the driver and the car.
_What effects will this have?
It must be our continuing goal to relieve the driver long-term. We must ensure that he feels relaxed and stress-free when he is behind the wheel and gives his full attention to what is happening on the road. He must be able to relax and be comfortable when he is in the vehicle. In my view, a successful operating concept makes a major contribution to this.
That may be, but at the same time the number of functions and thus the degree of distraction is growing steadily. But Ola Kaellenius, your new development chief, has said: “Never before have operating controls been this easy to use.” Can you explain that?
That’s not a contradiction. The classic cockpit had two or three tubes, that is, classic dials. Their information was fixed, and the switches and buttons defined. But the controls were not always user-friendly. We actually have more functions today, but we can respond to them differently. Our new E-Class is the best example. It has two high-resolution, 12.3 inch displays. One is a display for the infotainment system and one is an instrument cluster consisting of a large display with virtual instruments in the driver’s direct view. The driver himself can select the design of the widescreen from a range of three different styles. For the first time, the new E-Class has touch-sensitive controls in the steering wheel. They react precisely to horizontal and vertical swiping movements, much like the screen of a smartphone. In this way, you can control the entire vehicle system with swiping motions, without taking your hand off the steering wheel. Digitization is opening up completely new possibilities for us.
_Are customers getting along better with it? Can the new systems really be operated intuitively, as their developers insist?
Yes. Naturally, drivers must adjust to them first. It was really no different with the first smartphone. People were only familiar with a mobile phone that was overloaded with buttons. Today the intuitive use of the smart phone with swiping technology is completely natural for anyone of any age. The trick is to design the new technology so intelligently that it makes operation easy for the users. The learning phase must be short and daily use must be easy. It is like a child learning to walk: Once the learning process is complete, everything takes care of itself.
_Tests show that people have problems using the functions properly in high-stress situations. What solutions are appropriate in such situations?
The simplest solution would likely be to completely avoid stress…
_That’s good but unrealistic…
Indeed. That’s why we assign special importance to artificial intelligence in this area. It offers us the chance to collect and analyze a wide range of data from the vehicle and relieve the driver in a targeted way. Multiple activities can lead to stress when combined with a complex traffic situation. Suppose you have an appointment on your calendar and are thinking about the shopping that you still have to do and about picking up the children from school. And you are right in the middle of rush-hour traffic. This is pure stress. In the future, your car will become an assistant that will take over some of these tasks for you. The assistant knows the appointments on your calendar, the destinations to which you are driving next, and your predicted time of arrival based on the current traffic situation. And it reminds you about the children and your shopping list. We are already working on these kinds of scenarios. We will soon be in a position to significantly reduce the stress level behind the wheel through the selective use of artificial intelligence.
_That is still a long way off. Today, cars are constantly beeping and warning us. That creates more confusion than calm.
Developers are in fact involved in contentious discussions on that issue. We must manage to reduce and channel the information. Intelligent assistance systems are one key to doing this. If a danger is coming from the left, the beep should not merely come from somewhere in space. The driver’s view must be automatically directed to the left. And there should not be too much information sent out at the same time. Modern sensor technology can help us with this. We have cameras that can look ahead and sensors that detect obstacles. Artificial intelligence bundles all the information and then provides you with a crucial instruction: danger from the left! And you get the information in time.
_When will these systems be ready for series production?
It won’t be a single event or point in time. Complex technologies are generally introduced over a fairly long timespan. We already have our steering assistant on board. Vehicles recognize pedestrians and much more. The systems are being successively expanded and combined. So we are approaching the ideal state of affairs step-by-step. This also makes it possible for people to gradually get used to the new systems and their possibilities.
_Are you implementing the systems based on a classic top-down strategy as in the past or will there be a democratization of the systems?
At Mercedes-Benz, our claim is that quality and safety must be firmly anchored in our specifications. If a system provides an edge in safety, then it is used in all of our models. We naturally consider which innovation could mark its debut at which vehicle introduction – but we don’t artificially hold new technologies back for this reason.
_One main guideline – the two-twenty rule – states that any aversion of the driver’s eyes should last no longer than two seconds and it should take no more than 20 seconds to fully complete a task. Many experts now think this approach is too simple. How do you see it?
Here’s the main issue: Why were these rules formulated? I think their purpose is to steer the driver’s attention onto the road. And that’s the right thing to do. We carry that out consistently. We look at the plans and see how we can direct the driver’s attention to the task of driving. As I see it, there are two simple rules in this regard: eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. We develop new technologies for this exact purpose: touch controls, voice recognition, head-up displays … we are far less involved with the reasons for the rules’ existence than with the solution of complex tasks.
_You are talking about new technologies in the cockpit. What combination, what weighting, ultimately makes sense?
Multimodality still plays a major role today. But we want to go a step further. The intelligent car must be able to anticipate certain actions in the future. For example, if I reach in the dark to the right, the car should point the interior light at a point in this precise direction. There is no added value if I have to gesture with my fingers to turn up the volume on the radio. Something like that is just not intuitive.
– Predetermined voice commands and defined gestures are not the answer?
No. It must be possible to hold a natural conversation with the assistant in the vehicle. The use of trained commands is not the right approach. It is not natural. If I ask the vehicle assistant a question, the response could be another question – just like in normal life. That is the way that people converse – and that is how you should be able to communicate with the assistant in your car.
_Mercedes has researched augmented reality for operating controls for several years. Where does it stand right now?
That’s correct. We are doing research in this area. For example, we are looking at 3D depictions. We also have to carefully consider where the added value for the customer may be. Not everything that is possible makes sense.
_Globally, there are no uniform guidelines on operating concepts. Are the different guidelines standing in the way of the development of an intelligent HMI?
Digitization is already offering tremendous possibilities in this regard. The beauty of software: You can adapt it precisely to the market challenges. In China, people like the idea of having a payment function in the car. That’s not important to us in Europe. Thanks to the operating software, we can prepare our vehicles for these peculiarities. To answer your question: Even today, we are adapting to different markets, ideally to the particular customer. This is not an issue of guidelines.
_Daimler is presumably not developing software by itself. With whom are you working in this area?
With the formation of the Digital Vehicles and Mobility department led by Sajjad Khan, Daimler has decided to bundle all its activities in one area and put its emphasis on software development. Naturally, we also work with external partners to generate know-how. In addition, we draw on the expertise of our global development centers so we can stay in touch with the latest trends. The solution is the sum of the possibilities.
_ And finally, in your opinion, what will the operating concept of the future look like?
We have already addressed numerous points, such as the use of artificial intelligence for intelligent assistance systems. I would put it this way: Suppose you come home after a five-hour drive and your passengers ask you, “Can we please watch the film to the end and enjoy the massage seats a little longer?” If that happens, we will have done much of the job right. But seriously, we want Mercedes-Benz drivers to be relaxed while they are on the road. Intuitive operating controls play a key role in this. We are going all out in this area. In the end, drivers should be more relaxed when they arrive than when they began the trips.
Interview by Ralf Bretting and Hilmar Dunker