In Style + Design

Cars That Care: The Latest Auto Technology Trend

A lot of people really do love their cars, which explains why so many are willing to pay so much for something that essentially does the same job as a bus. And now it seems that affection is finally going to be returned, as new cars that care about their owners too hit the market.

Mercedes-Benz has just launched its new and supremely modern CLA – a cute and compact four-door coupe – which features not only a personal assistant that can answer any question you care to ask it, but also an onboard Energizing Coach, which constantly analyses your stress levels and attempts to make you feel better.

It works by connecting the car’s super-clever, cloud-based MBUX operating system to your body via your wearable device (at this stage it only works with Garmin watches, but more brands are set to be added).

The car then takes the information about how stressed, or tired, you are – examining how much sleep you’ve had in the past day, how much you’ve exercised, your heart rate and so on – compares it with past data and then suggests a “situational and individually adapted wellness or fitness program”, which you can activate by pressing the huge, iPad like screen on the dash.

The car technology was 10 years in the making

The latest Mercedes-Benz features an Energizing Coach, which constantly analyses your stress levels. Image: Mercedes-Benz / supplied

Dr Gudrun Schoenherr is a psychologist and physical therapist who’s been working with Mercedes-Benz to bring this car technology to market for no less than 10 years.

“We take all the stress information that is calculated by your wearable and this information goes into an algorithm we’ve developed, along with information about how far you’ve driven that day, what are the weather conditions, are the roads slippery, and the algorithm finds out that it might be helpful for you to have a regenerating program,” she explains.

“Then you will see a notification on your MBUX screen, that says ‘Energizing Coach recommends, Program Joy’, which is one of the programs designed to help you regenerate. It features a specially designed seat-massage program, the use of scents that are pumped into the cabin, changes to the lighting, and selecting appropriate music. It’s altogether designed to react to how you’re feeling.”

If the car detects that you’re feeling drowsy, rather than stressed, it will suggest a more “activating” kind of massage, and perhaps something booming on the stereo, to help wake you up.

It shares health advice too

On top of that, the svelte new CLA – which will arrive in Australia later this year with a starting price of around $55,000 – can also offer you health advice, or pretty much any information you’re after, according to Dr Alexander Schmitt, Mercedes’ Project Leader – User Experience.

In one demonstration, a driver is about to eat a tasty-looking chocolate donut, pauses and asks the car “how much fat is in one donut?” After the bad calorific news is delivered, she asks the CLA to take her to a healthy restaurant instead.

So, does it really work?

Car technology

The vehicle’s AI learns the driver’s personal ‘vocal track’ over time. Image: Mercedes-Benz / supplied

We put the MBUX system – which is activated by saying “Hey Mercdes” – to the test, asking it for stock prices, to tell us how tall Everest is and whether Elon Musk is sane. To be fair, it only worked about 80 per cent of the time, but Dr Schmitt says it would get better at understanding my voice over time, as the vehicle’s AI learns my personal “vocal track”.

The question we really wanted answered is why a car needs to be this smart?

“We sell intelligent cars, and now we have AI to help, so at some point you can expect from your car that it be intelligent and that if you ask it a question, any question at all, it should be able to answer you, it should be like your personal assistant,” Dr Schmitt explains.

What’s next?

There are plenty of updates to come to the system, of course, and soon enough the Energizing Coach will be able to provide you with forms of exercise while you’re in the car, using what Benz calls an Active Workout Cushion built into the seats, and if it thinks you’re getting a bit pudgy it will even advise you, via your wearable, to go for a run when you get home.

All this might seem like a strange tangent for car companies, until you consider that, in the future, when all cars can drive themselves and thus the way we interact with them changes completely, it is these kinds of features that customers will use to differentiate between brands.

Our relationships with our cars might be about to get deeper, and more personal.

(Lead image: Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe / supplied)

Published 10 April, 2019