The Mercedes-Benz F 015 is not a typical concept car, some lightly disguised version of next year's sedan complete with zippy entertainment electronics and snappy taillights. Instead this Mercedes is a leap into the future, a car so different and provocative that it leaves you feeling woozy, as if you'd taken a ride in Doc Brown's time-traveling DeLorean DMC-12.
We have to admit that trundling around a deserted aircraft runway in the Mercedes-Benz F 015 is not exactly a futuristic experience. Even so, it did help us understand that this concept car introduced at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show is about more than just the latest technology for autonomous driving. Instead it's a demonstration of what the future will feel like and why autonomous driving will seem like a very good idea in 2030, no matter what you might think about it now.
Shaping the future
At the 2011 Tokyo auto show, a group of future-oriented designers came together at the request of Holger Hutzenlaub, the leader of Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design in Sindelfingen, not far from the headquarters of Mercedes in Stuttgart, Germany. As Hutzenlaub tells us, he was looking for more than just the usual thinking about new cars. Instead he wanted to understand the cultural trends of our time and then bring them together into a car that could take Mercedes into the future.
The result is more like a carriage than a rocket ship. Passengers "inhabit" the Mercedes-Benz F 015 rather than drive it, and the interior has the visual cues and physical features of a mobile office rather than the usual jet-fighter cockpit. The message here is comfort and well-being, not excitement and motion. Indeed the vehicle is focused inward, even as it communicates with the outside world with an array of sophisticated electronics. It looks like an electronic product, and its license plate even carries a QR code.
When Hutzenlaub presented the proposal to build the F 015 concept car to the Mercedes board of management, it was part of a complete report, "The City of the Future 2030+." He recalls that the whole board unexpectedly seemed to respond to his plan with a sigh of relief. He says, "It was like they were pleased to know that there were people at Mercedes who were thinking about the future of the company."
The world will be spinning faster
It should be no surprise that Mercedes believes that the world will be spinning faster in 2030 as life becomes more crowded and complex, yet the scenario is far from the dystopian vision you might expect. It's true that urban centers will grow, but Eric Larsen of Mercedes-Benz R&D in Sunnyvale, California, points out that a baby boom looms ahead as the millennial generation matures. In the U.S., this generation will turn to America's large areas of suburban space to raise their families. And in the world of 2030 just as in the world of 1955, the automobile is the key instrument that makes the suburb possible.
Not that the world of 2030 will look familiar. Alexander Mankowsky, the Mercedes specialist in future studies, says that the limited spaces and bustling crowds of the future will make it foolish to continue the use of a forest of traffic signs to maintain a strict separation of cars and people. Instead, he says, cars must learn to coexist with humans in shared spaces, not only recognizing humans but also communicating with them. And in these circumstances, a car's ability to deliver autonomous driving will be crucial.
Motoring into the future
Peter Lehmann, who leads the 100 people at Mercedes Advanced Design in Sindelfingen that engineer and craft prototype cars, cheerfully invites us into the F 015. At the push of a button, the four doors swing outward by 90 degrees, and then four seats swivel outward to make it easier to cross the wide doorsill. The car is about the size of a Mercedes S-Class, although its long 142.1-inch wheelbase and 26-inch wheels make it look much larger. The platform carries its fuel cell up front, while the carbon-fiber tanks of hydrogen are hidden beneath the floor. The twin electric motors and the battery are in the rear. The lightweight body is built from steel, aluminum and carbon fiber.
Lehman motors the Mercedes-Benz F 015 around with a futuristic steering wheel, and the various controls on the instrument panel in front of him are meant to be operated with gestures. Then he engages automated mode so the car will follow a programmed loop around the vacant runway here on the site of the former Naval Air Station Alameda, and he swivels his seat around so we're all facing one another as if we were in a kind of booth at a very futuristic bar. The windows of the cabin present a view of our surroundings, only at a very subdued intensity. Meanwhile the door panels incorporate electronic screens that display an interface to control telephone and computer communication, some basic vehicle functions and even screen-saver graphics.
As Lehman points out, the great luxury in the future will be free time. And when your vehicle might be caught up in traffic during a trip, it will be a great luxury to devote yourself to work, entertainment or relaxation, and leave the car to its own devices. An autonomous vehicle like the Mercedes-Benz F 015 will get you to your destination thanks to a programmed route, an array of sensors, an ability to communicate with pedestrians and other vehicles with a system of external LED lights front and rear, and an incredibly powerful and fast-acting on-board computer.
The technology for autonomous driving is already here
The Mercedes-Benz F 015 is actually more like a rolling proof of concept than a research vehicle for autonomous driving, and it rumbles around like a science experiment instead of a car. At the moment, it's not actually much of an autonomous car, although testing continues on a dedicated research platform at a facility in Northern California dedicated to this purpose by the state government. Of course, the surprise is the fact that almost all the technology for the autonomous driving car is already on the road.
In August 2013, a pre-production Mercedes S-Class autonomously drove the same 100-km route from Mannheim to Pforzheim taken by Bertha Benz in 1888 when she carjacked her husband's three-wheeled science project without his knowledge and took their kids to see her mother. (An adventure that represented the first-ever long-distance drive by an automobile.) And now the Mercedes-Benz S550 you can buy incorporates precisely the array of radar- and optic-controlled sensors and systems required for fully autonomous driving.
Of course, we presently understand these systems as slightly prosaic features that give us adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, emergency braking, front-and-rear collision avoidance (both with cars and pedestrians), blind-spot warning and collision avoidance, and even active parking assistance. At the moment, Mercedes-Benz is also working on "Highway Pilot," which allows automated driving at higher speed.
The real leap into the future of autonomous driving will come only when the vehicle can recognize and respond to pedestrians in a compact environment, and this will take some serious computing power, not to mention sophisticated algorithms. In effect, Mercedes must teach the automobile to speak the same language as humans, and this will not be a simple process.
Driving into the future
The Mercedes-Benz F 015 is about the future, not just autonomous driving. It sees a time when humans and automobiles must share space, and this will call for new thinking when it comes to personal mobility. As it turns out, autonomous driving seems like the right response, since it leads the way to interaction between humans and automobiles that is safe, efficient, and even potentially rewarding in terms of taking road rage out of the driving equation.
The key here is an intelligent partnership between driver and car, which is something that driving enthusiasts can understand. In the world that Mercedes-Benz envisions, there will be times and places when you let the car take care of its occupants, just as there is now. Other times and places, you will determine the car's speed and direction, just as you do now. As long as the partnership between man and machine remains natural and enjoyable, Mercedes believes there will be little to fear from the forthcoming mobility revolution.
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