Trucks at Work

Driverless vehicles are here … and getting weird

Not to be a curmudgeonly cynic here (though, sadly, I often am) but I just can’t get my head wrapped around the idea of driverless vehicles – though, from the looks of things, I better get with it fast because they are popping up all over the place.

The latest versions of driverless cars – or “autonomous vehicles” if you prefer – were shown off at the recent Consumer Electronics Show out in Las Vegas this week, with the Mercedes-Benz F 015 luxury concept certainly the strangest-looking one of the lot.

Now, Mercedes-Benz is one of the OEMs at the forefront of driverless technology, demonstrating how such systems can pilot heavy-duty commercial trucks.

But the F 015 takes the driverless vehicle concept to a whole other level, in order to show how – in the words of Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management at Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz – the car is “growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport” to ultimately become a “private mobile retreating space.”

"Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” he added. “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

[Zetsche extrapolated on this line of thought further in a keynote speech at CES, some of which you can view below.]

Now, the F 015 can be controlled manually and it “communicates” different “modes” of operation through the use of light emitting diode (LED) colors – if the F 015 is driving autonomously, lights turn blue, or turn white if under manual control.

Drivers also control many of the functions within the F 015 via LED lights that are part of six display screens integrated into the instrument panel, rear and side panels, which turn the interior of the F 015 into what Mercedes-Benz engineers call a “digital arena.”

 Passengers can interact intuitively with the connected vehicle through gestures, eye-tracking or by touching the high-resolution screens. Sensors recognize the passengers' hands and offer them user interfaces within convenient reach that present appropriate operating options for each particular situation, with “particle streams” on the displays helping "visualize" the vehicle's movement.

The “lounge-like” interior space of the F 015 is decidedly funky from my point of view. Here’s how Mercedes-Benz engineers characterize it:

“A feel-good ambience characterized by elegance, quality and lightness. Sensual, flowing transitions and warm, organic materials such as open-pore walnut wood shaped into a three-dimensional veneer, and extremely soft ice white nappa leather contrast with clearly-defined metal and glass surfaces with a cool and technical feel.”

Is this a car we're talking about here or one of those super-expensive fruity drinks with an umbrella you buy at overpriced beach resorts? But I digress ...

One thing that Mercedes-Benz calls a “pivotal feature” of the F 015 interior is the variable seating system, with four rotating lounge chairs that allow a face-to-face seat configuration.

In order to make getting in and out of the car easier, the OEM said the electrically powered seats also swing outwards by 30 degrees as soon as the doors are opened.

If necessary, the driver and front-seat passenger can also turn their eyes and attention towards the front – a prerequisite for manual driving – so to this end the steering wheel extends automatically from the dashboard.

Now, to be fair, a lot of interesting design work is going into the body of this vehicle – which Mercedes-Benz is calling a "Smart Body Structure” or “SBS.”

The body combines carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), aluminum and high-strength steels, making the F 015’s body shell 40% lighter compared to today's production vehicles, the OEM noted.

Another key element of F 015 concept is the “saloon-door-style” door system featuring rear-hinged rear doors. The front and rear doors can be opened and closed independently of one another, Mercedes-Benz noted, with an opening angle of 90 degrees for all doors as the design of the body allowed for the elimination of B-pillars.

Yet safety isn’t compromised as a “sturdy” interconnected system with mechanical locking elements ensures the front and rear doors are fixed firmly to the roof frame and side skirts when closed. The resulting composite load path allows an extremely high amount of energy to be absorbed in the event of frontal or side impact, with minimal intrusion into the passenger compartment, the OEM noted.

Mercedes Benz added that doors themselves play a crucial role in the F 015’s passive safety concept, with the crash-responsive beltlines underneath the side windows able to “inflate” in a side-on collision, just like an airbag, allowing them to absorb as much impact energy as possible.

That protection is also critical as the F 015 is powered by a hydrogen-fired fuel cell connected to an electric drive system.

My, my, my: the F 015 certainly proves we are no longer in Kansas when it comes to vehicle design efforts, for sure.

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