Mercedes Totally Redesigns the Car, Steals Google’s Thunder

Those who think that Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) self-driving car is creepy will be frightened to death by Mercedes-Benz’s F-015 Luxury in Motion Concept Car. Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche introduced the vehicle to the press at a rather creepy press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas on Jan. 6, 2015.

Herr Zetsche was first joined on stage by a giant robotic eye that looked like a monster from a rerun of Doctor Who. He called the robot Cambot and displayed an amazingly dry sense of humor as he noted that the automaton didn’t like humans very much. Zetsche himself, who looks and sort of sounds like a Hollywood Nazi or a villain from a sci-fi movie, added to the creepiness.

Despite the low-budget sci-fi atmosphere, Zetsche’s presentation was impressive because he showed clearly that Mercedes and its parent, Daimler (OTC: DDAIF), are now the undisputed leaders in self-driving cars.

“The time is right to think about the car of the future,” Zetsche said. He then introduced the F-015, which does look like a car. It looks sort of like a Batmobile or a supercar. Older people will notice more than a passing similarity to KITT, the iconic robot car from the 1980s TV show Night Rider.

The Car of the Future a Lounge on Four Wheels

Zetsche described the F-015 as a “third place to relax, work, play.” He called the F-015 a carriage concept that would allow a luxurious ride. He compared the F-015 to a smart horse that could take its owner home on its own.

The F-015 has some fascinating capabilities, including the ability to display a crosswalk on the street with a projector and to alert drivers in cars behind it to pedestrians ahead. It does this with LED displays in the back head lights. The most intriguing part of the F-015 is that all the seats swivel, including the one behind the steering wheel.

Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche and his creepy pal Cambot at CES.

Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche and his creepy pal Cambot at CES.

The inside of the F-015 looks like a 1970s airport lounge on four wheels. The seats look more like lounge chairs, giving drivers a choice, as Herr Zetsche said, between “chilling or driving.”

Basically, like Google, Mercedes Benz has completely redesigned the car and turned it into a pure convenience. Driving is now an afterthought; the ride is everything. Daimler seems to recognize that a lot of people really don’t like driving, and those numbers are growing, as the falling percentage of young people that own a car testifies.

One reason for this is that roads are crowded and driving is an unpleasant experience. Another is that a lot of young people and probably older adults as well would like to do something besides drive, such as work, play video games, watch TV, read, text, or simply nap as they ride down the road. We see this in the number of texting drivers and authorities’ efforts to curb texting and driving.

The F-015 looks like the first car designed for people who don’t like to drive. Daimler is facing a hard reality of a world where people will need to get around but do not want  to drive. Yet it has some advantages over the Google Car. For starters, it looks like a car; the Google Car looks like a golf cart. Nobody would be embarrassed to pull up to the curb in it.

It also seems to have absorbed some of the lessons from the Google Car, which makes me wonder if Mercedes and Google are not working together. Herr Zetsche’s press conference had a decidedly Google feel to it.

The Beginning of the End of Individual Car Ownership?

The F-015 is offering a glimpse of what the car of the future will look like. It also shows what the drive of the future will be like; you’ll be able to complete your work, play fantasy football, nap, or catch up on your reading as the car whizzes down the road. If you’re taking a road trip, you can simply lie down and sleep in the car as it cruises down the interstate and save on hotel bills. One has to wonder when the first car with a bed will appear.

This also suggests a totally different model of car ownership and use. Instead of individual ownership, the cars will be parked along the roads or cruise the streets looking for passengers, much as ridesharing vehicles and taxicabs do today. Instead of owning a car, you’ll use an app to call one that’ll take you where you want to go.

If you need a bigger vehicle, such as a van or a pickup truck, you can call that too. Good news for Avis-Budget (NYSE: CAR) and Hertz (NYSE: HTZ), bad news for Uber drivers. Zipcar is one model of what future car ownership will look like; corporations or investors will buy such vehicles and have them cruising around looking for fares. Instead of buying a vehicle, you will subscribe to a car service that has vehicles available wherever you travel.

Cambot checks out the F-014. He needs a self driving car because he has no hands.

Cambot checks out the F-014. He needs a self driving car because he has no hands.

Obviously, self-driving technology will have to be greatly improved. Herr Zetsche admitted that it is still severely limited. One thing that such technology could do is to greatly lower auto insurance rates by lowering the number of accidents. Traffic cops, insurance agents, and B-list actors will have a much harder time finding work in the future as their jobs disappear.

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It looks like the company that invented the automobile in the first place, Daimler, is at the cutting edge of automotive technology. It might be the company that completely transforms the automobile into something Henry Ford wouldn’t recognize by actually making it convenient.