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Mercedes-Benz Pioneers Telematics Technology

Mercedes-Benz Pioneers Telematics Technology

Telematics - the marriage of cellular wireless technology and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite location - gave birth to a plethora of new services that provide automobile drivers with added safety, security, and convenience. Mercedes-Benz was an early proponent, and as it continues to take a leading role, the company faces the many challenges of trying to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies.

Mercedes-Benz was the first automobile manufacturer to offer an integrated telematics system - called Tele Aid - in all its vehicles sold in the United States. For 2003, Tele Aid is standard in eight Mercedes-Benz model lines and optional in the C-Class.

Tele Aid can summon emergency response help automatically if a collision deploys any airbag in the vehicle. The system transmits the precise location of the vehicle (through GPS tracking) as well as the model of car and its color, which helps EMS and police identify the vehicle quickly. The customer can also summon emergency help by pushing a button marked "S.O.S." A crash-secure transmitter uses its own dedicated cellular connection and does not require the customer to have a cellular phone.

Other Tele Aid features include theft-tracking, remote electronic diagnostics, emergency door unlock, and alarm notification via home telephone or personal cellphone. Non-emergency features include the ability to summon Mercedes Roadside Assistance and to contact the Customer Assistance Center with general questions. With the subscription concierge services, a customer can make travel, lodging, and dining arrangements and even get a tee time at over 300 U.S. golf courses.

Mercedes-Benz has always emphasized the safety benefits of Tele Aid first, and the convenience features second. In the process, the company has collected scores of customer testimonials describing how Tele Aid helped in an emergency, including life-or-death situations.

Despite the success of Tele Aid, it is probably fair to say that the euphoria surrounding telematics has subsided somewhat in the North American car market. The benefits of the "Internet on wheels" concept may have been overstated by the general and automotive media - and even by some car companies. However, it's clear that Mercedes-Benz USA is focused on useful technology that's user-friendly as well.

Ongoing Challenges
Mercedes-Benz is in the automobile business, not the consumer electronics business. Fundamental differences between the two result in some formidable - but not insurmountable - challenges to the growth of telematics. In a Mercedes-Benz, the tight integration of cellular, GPS, and other onboard technologies provides benefits that enhance safety and the ownership experience. When a customer places a call using the hands-free phone, for example, the audio system is muted, and a CD will be paused, resuming normal operation when the call is complete. With control buttons on the steering wheel, customers never need to take their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road.

Such integration, however, does create challenges when choosing a technology platform. The biggest challenge - at least in the U.S. market - is trying to accommodate advances in cellular technology within a vehicle's development cycle. While the industry average for a car's life cycle is about six years, the average life cycle of a cellular phone is closer to six months.

Once an auto manufacturer chooses a wireless platform, making changes mid-cycle is difficult and expensive enough to consider avoiding until the next model changeover. That can be a distinct disadvantage when a competitor then launches a new model that happens to include next-generation wireless technology.

Another challenge is inconsistency in the U.S. cellular network - different providers using a range of sometimes incompatible technologies. In Europe, the continent-wide GSM system (in itself an advantage) allows a phone user to simply remove a SIM card from one phone and insert it in another. However, in the U.S., everything is tied to an airtime contract. The Mercedes-Benz cellular phone program has evolved from analog to two different forms of the digital system (TDMA and CDMA), and will transition to an "American" GSM system in the next year or two.

However, car companies cannot keep asking customers to change technology platforms. They need to be able to offer them the ability to upgrade cellular technology - and the systems associated with it - with "plug-and-play" ease. One of Mercedes-Benz USA's long-term goals is a universal connectivity interface that can accommodate most available cellphones. This universal interface is possible in the next few years, and it will go a long way toward overcoming challenges posed by the U.S. cellular network.

The auto industry must also address the issue from driver distraction. While offering new and useful services to the customer, the industry must be mindful of how much attention their use requires of the driver. Mercedes-Benz began offering hands-free cellular telephones in its cars in 1991. Today the Mercedes driver can use voice control for the phone and audio systems. Continuous improvements in voice-control technology will also impact advancements in telematics services.

The new Tele Trek feature for 2003 provides a glimpse of the future to Tele Aid customers. With Tele Trek, Dallas-based ATX Technologies, Inc., provides Mercedes drivers with voice-response, voice-delivered, location-specific traffic reports on the most frequently traveled interstates and major highways in 65 major markets. On a home or office computer, the customer accesses a personalized Tele Aid Web account to identify commonly traveled routes. When the customer drives outside an identified route, Tele Trek provides traffic information within a five-mile radius of the vehicle's location. Subscribers can also request route assistance to guide them around the traffic congestion. The feature, which costs $75 per year, is currently available on certain 2001, 2002, and 2003 Mercedes models, and will be available on all models later this year.

In general, Mercedes-Benz believes the automobile dashboard should provide the driver with only the essential information, just when it is needed, and secondary information should be easily available on demand. They introduced the COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data) system with the current-generation S-Class line for model-year 2000, and it is now available in most Mercedes models. COMAND integrates operation of the navigation, phone, and audio systems. The driver can access many of the functions via buttons on the steering wheel, navigating through easy-to-read menus on a small display screen within the speedometer and in direct line-of-sight.

Dealing with Obsolescence
Every carmaker must deal with how rapidly wireless and navigation technology is advancing. If a navigation system does not give customers accurate directions, they may blame the system. The real culprit, of course, is likely to be the map database that all navigation systems must carry onboard. When these systems first appeared, some used proprietary data storage technology, but the industry soon recognized the need to use a standard - the CD-ROM.

The drawback with CD-ROM is storage space - it takes nine discs to provide map data for the contiguous United States; that's why the industry is transitioning to DVD. But when technologies are integrated for the benefit of the customer, changes in the technology platform generally must wait until the next generation of the vehicle, or at least until a major mid-cycle freshening. The concept of "plug and play" and universal connectivity will help eliminate this obstacle.

Don't, however, confuse platform with format. Whether CD or DVD, you still need a disc and a device to read it. Whether it's on one disc or nine, map data still becomes outdated. Some customers who bought the first navigation systems have never upgraded their original map CDs, and companies certainly cannot expect them to buy upgrades every year or two. That's a tough lesson the computer software industry is learning today.

The new-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class that debuted last summer will soon offer a DVD-based navigation system that will be retrofittable to the new-generation models sold since then. Today it's DVD, but someday, this type of continually updated information is likely to be downloaded to the car via a broadband wireless system.

Going forward, Mercedes-Benz is preparing for a growing telematics role. At the same time, the company acknowledges that further advances in the technology must serve the customers' needs. Customers do not want to pay for something they won't use. They demand and deserve real benefits and ease of use.

More Stories By Robert Diamond

Robert Diamond is the founder and editor-in-chief of, the premiere theater site on the net now receiving over 100,000 unique visitors a day. He is also the owner of Wisdom Digital Media - a leading designer of entertainment and technology web sites. He is also the lead producer on's consistently sold-out Joe's Pub concert series, and Standing Ovations benefit concerts. Diamond was also named one of the "Top thirty magazine industry executives under the age of 30" by Folio magazine. Robert holds a BS degree in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. Visit his blog at

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