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Car as a device, not just a vehicle

The battle for market space in high-end cars has led to a new war in an unchartered zone - the technology features arena, writes Rajiv Makhni.

brunch Updated: Mar 31, 2014 01:52 IST
Rajiv Makhni

It all started with a talk I was to give at Auto Expo 2014 on 'Technology in Cars'. I used clichés like "a car today has more tech in it than a roomful of computers". At the end, the mild applause showed I hadn't broken any new ground with my observations - but the next three hours spent at Auto Expo did!

Premium and high-end car manufacturers told me a story that made my geeky heart go all warm and fuzzy. The battle for market space in high-end cars has led to a new war in an unchartered zone - the technology features arena.

Read:Five most expensive cars at the Auto Expo

Open your car door and the boot with just gestures (left); don’t be surprised if the dashboard is missing. Once seated, your seat, side-view mirrors and steering wheel move to preset positions (right).

The Loyalty Breaker
Most consumers of high-end cars make up their mind to buy a new model based on loyalty, experience as well as what they perceive the brand status to be. So customers don't usually jump brands. That, in the last few years has seen a dramatic change. There is a new learning that the only way for a car brand to get customers to jump ship is to bring in radical new tech features. I'm not talking about things like the engine, or torque. I'm talking actual tech features, the same way we compare mobile phones. That's a paradigm shift for cars as the buying criterion shifts from typical features to a car being evaluated like a gadget.

And thus was born the idea of a new series of columns. Cars being reviewed as devices rather than motor vehicles. Once a month, I'll bring in a super-tech specced-out car and review it based on the tech inside and out. We'll kick things off with what many believe is the car that sets the bar very high - the 2014 Mercedes Benz S Class.

The Exterior
The fact that this car is brimming with tech is obvious from the outside. With the key in your pocket, the car unlocks as soon as you touch the inside of the car handle. Touching a contact point on the outside locks the car up tight as a drum. It's much like using a swipe gesture on the touchscreen of a phone to unlock it.

I had great fun taking people up to the car and telling them that this was a test of the inner soul and that the car would open 'automagically' only for someone with a pure heart. (How gullible people are!) More fun can be had with the outside by approaching the boot with shopping bags in your hand and swiping your foot just underneath to open the door. No hands required.

Discover the COMAND online control system that has a fully automated car manual (left); the car can give you a hot-stone-style massage(right).

Inner Nirvana
Once you open the door, you find that the steering wheel and seat are ridiculously far apart to make sure you can get in and out easily. The next shocker: there is no dashboard. It's eerily bare till you inset the key and the car seat, side-view mirrors and steering start moving into preset positions while two giant screens in front come alive.

All the car information are high-end graphics, and animation on these high-resolution screens. Burmester speakers spin out from the door. There are 24 speakers with 24 amplifier channels and a system output of 1,540 watts with sub woofers firing from the boot enclosure. Ambient lighting sets up a luxurious space with seven colour moods. People described it as sitting in the ultimate living room.

Watch: Cruise bikes galore at Auto Expo 2014

Home Theatre
On Wheels I next discovered the COMAND Online control system. This is where you access navigation, phone, audio, video, Internet and a fully animated car manual.

Inside resides a hard disc navigation system, a DVD changer, 10GB storage for audio and video files, ports for external devices plus a rear seat entertainment system with two 10-inch displays, DVD player, two wireless headphones and remote control. What seemed like a living room was now a home theatre.

Business or First Class
Cars like this are built more for the person sitting behind. Thus, I parked myself on the backseat and pressed the 'bed' button. The seat in front disappeared down and away and out popped a footrest. Combined with the fact that my seat had moved into an almost flat position, this was as close to a bed in a car as I was going to get. The next button activated a hot stone-style massage with six programmes.
There's even a MB Touch app to activate this and almost every other car function from your smartphone. Propping myself up again, I found more buttons that turned the backset into a workspace with fold-down tables, in-car Wi-Fi hotspot, USB and 12-volt sockets and heated and chilling cup holders. Living room, to home theatre to travelling office.

And More Night View
Assist lets your screen in front highlight and show people and animals on the road before your naked eye can spot them. Surround View cameras give you an all-round, real-time view using four networked cameras with a bird's eye view and a full 360 degrees. And Active Parking Assist will automatically steer the vehicle into a tight space on its own.

That was a quick look at the biggest gadget I have ever reviewed. The good news is that this technology will percolate to other cars soon. Next up are the other two big contenders for Techiest Car of the Year - the BMW 7 series and the Audi A8.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, March 30

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