What is going on at Mercedes? I’m lost for words at developments coming out of Stuttgart these last couple of weeks...
What is going on at Mercedes? I’m lost for words at developments coming out of Stuttgart these last couple of weeks and am left wondering if the company will even survive in its current form much beyond its centenary year in 2026. Hey Mercedes, what are you doing?
Just a couple of weeks after it junked its reputation for advanced technology development by betting the house on an automated driving strategy based entirely on Nvidia, Mercedes has begun to promote the 2021 S-Class, featuring the most sophisticated augmented reality head-up display (AR HUD) ever seen in a series-production vehicle.
A little time spent on LinkedIn reveals comment after comment from obviously proud Mercedes-Benz engineers who have worked tirelessly on the design and development of this technology, which is part of the new MBUX infotainment system. An in-depth video explaining the functionality of the system is below. Well done to everyone involved, I am really impressed.
Just over a minute in, Oguzhan Türksoy, project lead for augmented reality for MBUX, begins to discuss the new 3D organic LED instrument cluster. This really grabbed my attention because Mercedes has used a vision-based driver monitoring system (DMS) to track precise movements of the driver’s eyes and head orientation to create the 3D effect.
My expert judgment is that the DMS software provider in the S-Class is Seeing Machines — the provider of the DMS in GM Super Cruise in the Cadillac CT6 — which is almost certainly also the supplier of the DMS for Ford’s recently announced Active Drive Assist in the 2021 Mustang Mach-E and F-150.
Smart Eye is the other key DMS software provider already in series-production vehicles (BMW X3, X4, X5, Z4, 3-Series and 8-Series), with Eyesight AI, Jungo Connectivity and Xperi leading the chasing pack. You will hear a lot more about all five of these companies over the next two to three years, as regulators and lawmakers quickly wake up to the benefits of monitoring human drivers for distraction and fatigue.
Who would have believed back in January that 2020 would mark the beginning of the end of the “self-driving” dream and that face masks and DMS would become de rigueur? Let’s look into that briefly, before coming back to Mercedes.
Wear a mask, fit a DMS
Since EE Times is a trade publication the politics of compulsory mask wearing in shared and public spaces goes beyond the scope of this opinion piece. However, the courtesy of wearing a face mask in public when you have a cough is irrefutable.
Socially responsible automakers realize that, just as with mask wearing, it is now extremely poor etiquette to introduce any form of “hands-free” highway assist feature — typically auto-steering or long duration lane-centering — without sophisticated vision-based driver monitoring to observe the driver’s engagement level and attention state.
In 2020, public safety on shared highways takes precedence over reckless and inconsiderate use of L2 driver assistance systems. BMW, Ford and Mercedes all clearly understand this, but NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) seemingly does not — or does not care — as this week’s installment of Tesla plows into stationary emergency vehicle shows.
Naturally should you choose to drive your new L2-capable vehicle equipped with vision-based DMS while wearing your face mask or other combinations of personal protective equipment, the clever DMS development engineers have already thought of that.
Meanwhile, back at Mercedes
In February 2019 BMW and Mercedes’ parent company Daimler announced an agreement to pool their resources into “a joint mobility effort that spans autonomous cars, ride-hailing, electric scooters, car-sharing, and electric car charging.” Harald Krüger, chairman of BMW, commented “We can combine our strengths and become a champion. This is the vision.”
The vision was myopic and clearly didn’t extend to operating ride-hailing services, electric scooters and car-sharing in a Covid-19 world, nor did it consider the complexity challenge of developing autonomous cars and was terminated in June. Less than a week later, Mercedes announced a new joint venture with Nvidia.
Here is my question: If Mercedes needed to license both software and SoCs to implement automated driving, then what was it contributing to the BMW venture? We know about the BMW technology ecosystem encompassing Mobileye and Intel; Aptiv (formerly Delphi); Continental; and Magna.
A close relationship is also known to exist between Continental and Xilinx for FPGAs used in assisted and automated driving control units, and is almost certainly to implement the driver monitoring function. Putting the pieces together we can clearly see all the details of BMW’s technology development roadmap, so the conclusion I draw from the saga is that BMW dumped Mercedes.
The Mercedes-Nvidia deal could further be viewed as a rejection of Mercedes’ long-term technology partner Bosch, which I suspect is now even more closely aligned with Volkswagen than it was before. Presumably Bosch is now actively engaged in developing ADAS and DMS solutions for the various Volkswagen Group brands, to meet tougher requirements for Euro NCAP and the updated European General Safety Regulations.
Mercedes’ moment in the technology spotlight with the launch of the 2021 S-Class looks set to be brief. The BMW i4 to be launched next year will almost certainly also feature an AR HUD and be the first series-production vehicle using the Mobileye EyeQ5 chip, implying it will offer industry-leading automated driving capabilities. And which DMS software provider was presenting on the BMW stand at CES in January? Seeing Machines. I’m anticipating the i4 to be something really special.
BMW has formed a deep and rich technology ecosystem to execute its automated driving ambitions. In comparison Mercedes has just handed the keys to Nvidia and announced what looks like a panicked strategic shift to a new architecture (Ampere) with no proven track record for automotive use, and the Orin SoC which at the time of the announcement was neither in production nor automotive-qualified. Engineers will recognize all of this as a “single point of failure”, which in mission-critical system design should be avoided at all costs.
If I were to choose one word to describe BMW’s automated driving strategy it would be “exceptional”. In comparison the word I would choose for Mercedes is “baffling”. And after all of that I am still left with the original question: Hey Mercedes, what are you doing?