Mercedes-Benz is taking a new approach to the struggle of how to integrate popular infotainment features into the vehicle so they can be used while driving in the safest way possible.
Its recently launched mbrace2 infotainment system includes several apps that have been altered for automotive use, including Facebook and Yelp.
Rob Policano, mbrace2 product manager, says tweaking the programs is an expensive, but necessary, endeavor.
“It is a big investment,” he tells WardsAuto. “But one of the things we believe is that telematics and connected-car services and technologies are just passing that point of ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have.’
“The real focus for us with all of the apps is the underlying theme of smart, safe integration.”
While he declines to place a dollar figure on the process, Policano says a Mercedes team worked hand-in-hand with the original app developers on the proprietary modifications.
In the case of Facebook, some features deemed unsafe to use while driving were removed, while others were added.
“Facebook is not the same version you’d see on a phone or a computer,” he says. “It had to be completely broken down to its essential elements and rebuilt with the driver in mind.”
For example, games can’t be played on the mbrace2 Facebook app, nor can messages be personalized while the vehicle is moving. Instead, users can choose from a number of pre-written “boiler plate” messages and with the touch of a button post the vehicle location on his or her Facebook page.
Yelp, a popular social-networking site where people can post reviews about businesses, was modified to show their star ratings and allow hands-free calling to the selected business. It also can download route directions to the business to the vehicle’s navigation system.
“It mimics what customers are accustomed to,” Policano says. “Our Yelp version has, for the most part, the same search-and-find capabilities as the mobile and PC versions, but it’s geared towards the driver looking for a business.”
Mercedes also offers customized versions of Google, as well as news and stock apps and an internet browser.
More apps customized by Mercedes’ in-house development team will be added.
“It’s the safest way possible (to use apps in a vehicle),” Policano says. “Otherwise customers will just bring in the apps with phones themselves.”
Mercedes’ mbrace2 boasts a number of other features, many found on competing systems, such as remote vehicle access capabilities, concierge services and safety and security offerings.
Perhaps most cutting-edge is the auto maker’s plans for vehicle diagnostics.
Long term, Mercedes believes remote vehicle-diagnostics technology “will have the greatest impact on the auto business, even more than infotainment,” Policano says.
Currently, the diagnostics offerings are in their infancy, limited to vehicle owners calling the auto maker’s customer-assistance center when a vehicle problem is encountered. That call is supplemented by information sent directly to the operator from the car.
But near term, Mercedes plans to add the ability to transmit vehicle-diagnostic information automatically to the dealer, which in turn would alert customers of any looming problems or whether it is time for routine maintenance, such as a filter change.
Once an appointment is scheduled with the dealer, an inventory search would be triggered to ensure needed parts are on hand so service turnaround time is as quick as possible.
A number of issues need to be addressed first, including sorting out what is to be done with the information collected and establishing rules of engagement with the customer.
“There is a whole cascade of things that could be triggered through that diagnostic report in a car,” he says. “Right now diagnostics are limited, but the technology is there.”
Mbrace2 launched this spring in the ’13 SL roadster and will be standard in most ’13 models.