Mercedes-Benz dabbles in the future with some weird results – Words by Chris Mullett.
There’s innovation, futuristic designs, the interpretation of market trends, bold styling, and then there’s weird, followed by ‘what the?’
In the van and truck world, perhaps we are generally too conservative when it comes to experimenting with styling themes that take the futuristic path to extremes. While pick-up and delivery fleets (PUD) globally are preparing to embrace electric vehicles, we tend to expect the battery-powered rechargeable result to at least look like something we recognise as a van, not something that resembles a space shuttle from the Starship Enterprise.
Despite our expectations, albeit featuring concrete foundations in conservatism, Mercedes-Benz has shared its vision for future PUD work in the form of the adVANce initiative.
If you’ve got your head around adVANce as the heading for the key to autonomy in the world of MB head office in Stuttgart, then you’ll easily take on the acronym of CASE, standing for Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Services, and Electric. We’re not too sure how CASE New Holland view this latest announcement, or whether MB cleared the acronym for consent with the maker of farm equipment and IVECO Trucks, but, given the size of the German conglomerate, the Italians were probably never consulted on the subject.
Since 2015, MB has been sending out exploratory missions under the guise of the Intelligent Word Drive programme, with an S-Class equipped for deep learning around the world to gather information from real traffic situations. Also boldly going where no truck has gone before was the Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner experiment in partial autonomy. In the meantime, our team at Delivery is left wondering why actual people didn’t just stop and watch the traffic go by in order to learn about trends and traffic flow. We also struggle with the removal of the driver in any commercial vehicle application where the load has to be secured and safe, as this basic level of autonomy could leave to all sorts of drama.
But enough cynicism on our part, let’s dive into the adVANce Initiative and see what the fuss is about.
The latest buzzword (or two) is “holistic mobility”. Defined as an organic infrastructure that organises our everyday lives, the phrase immediately had us thinking back to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, where the plant created an organic variation to life as Jack knew it.
The next new phrase to learn is “city morphology”. This is a field of science (apparently), that analyses urban areas in biological terms – as a living and growing organism, where the layout is a kind of genetic code, and the cells are permanently changing and regenerating themselves. In this view, MB executives expect onlookers to view the company’s vans as molecules that keep a city metabolism alive. Enzymes with cooling units, antibodies with blue lights, or electrically-powered messengers with plenty of space for important goods.
Having come into forced contact with advertising agency personnel through several decades, it’s been a long-held theory that some ad campaigns have resulted from the ingestion of hallucinating substances, given that the creative team would enthuse about a campaign that nobody else could understand, least alone the intended customer.
On the basis of “what goes around, comes around”, that seems to be where some of the thinkers employed by the vehicle makers are heading once again, ironically at a time when the drivers at the end of the food chain have reduced their exposure to mind-altering chemicals in favour of a good night’s sleep.
Returning to things understandable for a moment, Mercedes-Benz states that its new Sprinter van range will be fully electric by 2019. Apparently, by losing the driver from the vehicle, the prophecy is that we can multiply transport efficiency many times over. This theory of course worked so well when Telstra and the high street banks reduced staffing levels, claiming that less staff enables greater efficiency. This premise was undoubtedly also a contributing factor to NBN and Telstra connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting our office internet service three times within two weeks, in an amazing display of enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, back at the coalface, Mercedes-Benz has developed VISION URBANETIC, a system that combines urban mobility, battery electric motive power and full autonomy. The platform can be used to transport both goods and people, presumably in different modules, hopefully preventing the case where a robot hangs up bus passengers on a meat hook in the back of a fridge pan module, while placing a pack of bricks neatly on a velour covered seat in a passenger transport module. Just a word of warning when you reach your destination – as you exit your autonomous module, look left, look right and then look up to ensure you are not struck by a passing drone completing the last kilometre to the barcode on the parcel.
As part of a holistic system solution, Vision URBANETIC is claimed to address future urban challenges and offer innovative solutions. The visionary concept is based on a self-driving, electrically-powered chassis that can take different switchable bodies for people moving or goods transport.
As a ride-sharing vehicle, Vision URBANETIC can accommodate interchangeable bodies for up to twelve passengers, or ten EPAL pallets in the cargo module that is 3700 mm long and fits into a total vehicle length of 514 0 mm. The modules are switched either automatically or manually, with the automated process taking just a few minutes. The concept also incorporates an IT infrastructure that analyses in real time the supply and demand within a defined area. The result is a self-driving fleet, with routes planned flexibly and efficiently on the basis of current transportation needs. All of this is claimed to make Vision URBANETIC a groundbreaking concept for future urban mobility.
Alternatively, you might choose to take the train.