Special Report

The Telematics Tide

Mercedes-Benz USA says it will take the wraps off the newest version of its mbrace infotainment system at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Sascha Simon, head of advanced product planning, says keeping pace in the rapidly moving infotainment space has become a must for auto makers, as more consumers are demanding connectivity in their vehicles.

“Consumers are going to expect these technologies to be in their car, and they are going to sway a purchasing decision,” he tells Ward’s. “This is a technology like airbags or (antilock brakes); it’s integral to the car.”

Sales of in-vehicle technology will reach a $9.3 billion this year, up 2% compared with 2009, the Consumer Electronics Assn. says.

While systems such as Ford’s Sync and General Motors’ OnStar have become household names, MBUSA’s mbrace is setting the pace in the luxury segment, Simon contends.

Developed by Hughes Telematics, mbrace was launched in 2009 and already has undergone three updates, increasing the number of available features from 18 to 40, many of them accessible through vocal commands.

Activated by pressing a button emblazoned with the letter “i” on the console, mbrace offers safety and security services, such as automatic collision notification, and navigation aids, including location-based weather reports and route assistance.

But mbrace is somewhat unique, combining a live-operator service similar to GM’s OnStar with technical solutions comparable with those offered by Ford’s Sync.

Mbrace operators can remotely unlock or lock doors, track down a missing vehicle, monitor the condition of the vehicle and provide concierge services, such as booking reservations at a restaurant.

Mbrace also is one of the few telematics systems to include a mobile app, currently available for the iPhone and Blackberry, Simon says.

Most other applications that connect the car to a phone are made for electric vehicles, says Kevin Link, vice president of marketing-Hughes Telematics.

“We were the first in the industry, with Mercedes, to develop a truly integrated smartphone application for the vehicle,” he tells Ward’s. “It’s a James Bond-type remote control that allows you to interact with your Mercedes.”

One of the latest is the “Drive2Friend” feature that allows users to send a request to a friend asking for his location. Once the request is accepted, directions are downloaded automatically to the car’s navigation system.

If the friend’s mobile device is equipped with global-positioning technology, the system can determine location within a few meters, the auto maker says. If global positioning is not available, the system triangulates the location based on cell signals.

Drive2Friend is “just one of the up-and-coming features of mbrace that focuses on social media,” Simon says.

Another feature that sets the mbrace apart is a downloadable personal-computer toolbar that allows users to access the system’s applications remotely.

Link says the toolbar has an added marketing benefit for Mercedes. “People are behind their computer eight hours a day, and look at what’s staring them in the face – the brand,” he says.

Mbrace is standard on all Mercedes models except the C-Class sedan and GLK compact cross/utility vehicle.

The take rate for the system on those two vehicles is “low,” Simon admits. “Dealers are not ordering it,” he says. “I think they like to order less features on those price-sensitive cars. So we’re going to make (mbrace) standard on all vehicles in the future.”

While Simon is mum on the new features to be announced at CES, he says they will help Mercedes maintain telematics leadership over its luxury competitors.

“While luxury competitors are staying close, we’re very sure with the next launch at CES we’re going to leapfrog ahead,” he says.

Mbrace also is expected to play an integral role in the auto maker’s new line of small cars within the next two years.

Simon is tightlipped on details about the new models, revealing only that they will be positioned below the current C-Class and come “loaded with features and technologies” to appeal to a younger audience.

bpope@wardsauto.com