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Mercedes-Benz unveils telematics vision with much fanfare, few details

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LAS VEGAS -- With a smart, truly intelligent car, the world will be able to get around better and more efficient than ever before. That's according t...

LAS VEGAS -- With a smart, truly intelligent car, the world will be able to get around better and more efficient than ever before.

That's according to Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche, who took to the stage here at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show to offer a glimpse into the automaker's vision for in-vehicle telecommunications systems.

"A smart vehicle can be so much more than a mode of transportation," he said. "[It's] the next level of auto mobility."

The German carmaker officially unveiled the second-generation of its telematics platform, called mbrace2, which promises to incorporate social media, GPS navigation and text-to-speech in a single dashboard package.

"We're going from automobiles to auto-mobility," he said. "In large part, that mobility will be fueled by software."

But Zetsche avoided details or a demonstration of the system. "Even the best automobiles [to date] have not been the brightest," he said, in subtle defense of his company's decision to let rivals enter the in-car telematics market first.

Instead, Zetsche chose to spend most of his time outlining an optimistic vision where the automotive and the digital intertwine: one in which the windshield becomes an augmented reality heads-up display; one where natural gestures can be used to manipulate the vehicle; one where the car tells you where you can find an open parking space; one where autonomous driving is available as an option.

"The connected car is a proactive car," he said.

With words like "freedom," "liberty," "connectivity" and "self-expression," Zetsche described telematics as a way to liberate the driver from the car -- while simultaneously offering more reasons to stay inside it.

"If we bring the best of both worlds together, we will not only protect the traditional strength of automobiles but also make further growth sustainable and create new opportunities," he said.

Zetsche, known for his bold mustache and his "Dr. Z" persona in advertisements, structured his presentation in five "chapters."

Those were:

  • Chapter 1: Freedom of time. "The digital world has long been in a different time zone from the automotive world," Zetsche said. People may drive decades-old cars, but no one's using a 20-year-old mobile phone, he said.
  • Chapter 2: Freedom of speech. "The freedom of not just talking to your car, but also being understood by it," Zetsche said. Speech offers a new way to interface with the vehicle and accomplish tasks.
  • Chapter 3: The freedom of access. "The car gives you access to a whole world of opportunities," Zetsche said, but it used to require ownership. Connectivity can "free you" from the car's hardware to communicate.
  • Chapter 4: Freedom of energy. As both the consumer electronics and auto industries grow at "a remarkable pace," side effects -- on climate, on natural resources -- loom. That's bad business no matter how you cut it. "Oil may cost us more than what we pay at the pump," Zetsche said. "Electric mobility marks the beginning of the post-oil era."
  • Chapter 5: Freedom of information. Using information in new ways, such as utilizing data from sensors in cars around you to notify you that congestion, or slippery road conditions, are ahead. "We use the web to manage huge amounts of data traffic," Zetsche said. "So why not use it to manage huge amounts of road traffic?"

Today's automobile has its drawbacks, and they're well-known. The problem: the car remains an increasingly popular product as emerging economies grow more robust and seek mobility, Zetsche said.

"Billions of people in China, India and other highly populated growth countries have only begun to discover individual mobility," he said. And there just isn't enough space in Shanghai or Mumbai to fit them.

That's why two petite Smart cars flanked the brassy SL Roadster and F125! concept car behind Zetsche onstage. Part of Daimler's vision is to encourage car-sharing (through its Car2Go venture, which will add 12 cities in 2012) and ride-sharing (through its CarTogether program). "It's like cloud mobility: you don't physically own a car, but you have access to one," he said.

"Some colleagues still think that car-sharing borders on communism," Zetsche said. "But if that's the case, viva la revolución!"

Nor is there enough energy. Energy storage advancements will help electric cars become "smart grids on wheels: efficiently storing electricity from renewable sources," he said.

In the end, though, the future car needs to be fun. It needs to inspire, Zetsche said.

"To be truly successful, a car has first to deliver its function," he said, "and then [deliver] excitement."

Photos: Sarah Tew

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure