North American Auto Show: Detroit Sees the Future
Unlike most car makers at the Detroit auto show, Mercedes-Benz looked ahead, in a big way. Dan Neil also reports on the best the show had to offer
By Dan Neil in the Wall Street Journal
IT LOOKS LIKE an industrial accident involving a sizable blob of mercury. No particular windshield or backlight can be discerned. It’s very much a carriage, actually, as you have a large, open-plan cabin suspended between sets of wheels. And like a carriage from the Court of the Louis, the financial royalty inside can disport as they like—participating in virtual meetings and whatnot, courtesy of the encircling video displays that the designers call a “digital arena”—as the machine takes them where they are going.
Wildly futuristic? You might wish otherwise, but no. Actually, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept (insufferably named, by the way) was the only vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that was actually speaking to the real automotive future of, say, two decades hence—at which point it’s unlikely many of us will be driving Ford GT’s.
Connectivity—the power to maintain an unbroken digital presence wherever you go, a hi-res you from any mobile device—and the science of vehicular autonomy will together transform most Americans’ relationship with the automobile. The F 015 Luxury in Motion answers the inevitable next question: What will people do in cars when they don’t have to drive?
Here Mercedes-Benz’s pitch takes a slightly darker turn, as it suggests that in crowded, competitive urban environments of the future the notion of automotive luxury itself will be redefined, less about leather and wood and more about isolation from the (hot, flat, crowded) world outside. Again, a royal carriage, only this time the peasants can’t find a handhold to grab onto.
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The ovum-like weirdness of the F 015—surprisingly un-aerodynamic, actually—is meant to hint at the design possibilities of such technology. Note the semi-opaque windows. The LED light cluster at the front would flash blue or white, signaling autonomous and manual operation, respectively. Mercedes foresees autonomous-only city zones.
OK, maybe not the gleaming ice-cream-scoop seats and steamed Scandinavian wood, but some version of the F 015 will come to your street or driveway in the next quarter century. Mercedes is far from alone. Nissan, GM and Tesla have all promised limited autonomous functionality before the end of the decade. Google has its first bubble-y autonomous prototypes running around Silicon Valley.
And the pace of innovation is quickening. Last week, Audi sent a semi-autonomously piloted Q7 from Palo Alto to Las Vegas’s International Consumer Electronic Showcase, a distance of 550 miles. No journalists were hurt.
There is a long way to go. For example, someone will have to inform the federal government. Meanwhile, consumers will be waiting for autonomous function like hungry orphans.
Once you take autonomy as a given, and the F 015 thinks you should, many of the automobile’s greatest liabilities can be cured. Can’t find a parking spot in all of Brooklyn? Autonomy would allow cars to locate themselves in megadepots and skyscraper parking decks that human drivers would never want to negotiate, to be recalled at any time.
The implications for urban planning are seismic, since it is the need to park the automobile within walking distance of a destination that has turned many city centers into ugly patchworks of surface parking lots. Autonomous parking—a relatively modest function, and one of the first to be made available—will radically change the way people approach and depart public spaces. Your car could drop you off at the door of the mall or retrieve you from the grocery store.
The social implications of a technology that returns independence and mobility to seniors are staggering. Pursued with best practices, autonomy could be a saving grace for millions of retiring boomers. Impaired and drunken driving will become obsolete. Parents of teenage drivers can go to bed and stop worrying.
The Detroit auto show, the traditional spot for car makers to unveil new hardware, will reveal more than 40 new vehicles this week. These are some of the cars, trucks and crossovers on display.
Will autonomy be safe? Better to say it will be safer than the faulty wetware currently in controls of our cars and trucks. Last year about 32,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. I think Google can do better.
What goes on in the space pod of the future? The F 015 does have a steering wheel, and some quite impracticable foot pedals, in front of the driver’s couch. But once the car’s autonomous operation is engaged—the “Conductor” mode, Mr. Lehmann called it—the driver may swivel around to talk face-to-face with passengers. Mercedes-Benz foresees a lot of dignified teleconferencing and work-time optimization among its model passengers, but the truth is, you could just flake out. I see a lot of babies being born named WALL-E, or somesuch.
Among the tricks of the digital arena—the panels in the doors—is the way you can change the view of the passing landscape. If you’re driving through a dull part of Oklahoma, for example, you can opt to display a slow panning shot of Paris.
Oh, look, there goes King Louis.