Mercedes chose the glitzy surroundings of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to unveil its latest take on the whole autonomous car thing and that's probably because the German marque knows all too well that the madcap F 015 isn't suited to the petrolhead crowds of your typical motor show.
It looks strange, drives itself and features some of the most cutting-edge technology ever seen on a vehicle, so we pushed our way past the hoards of intrigued bystandersto get a personal guided tour of Merc's autonomous piece of artwork with none other than Prof. Dr. Thomas Weber, the man responsible for its very existence.
Mercedes-Benz F 015: What is it?
It's Mercedes' take on autonomous luxury transport of the future. A vehicle that can comfortably seat four people on individual, sci-fi inspired swivel chairs and effortlessly whisk occupants to destinations using a plethora of autonomous tech. "Autonomous driving is one of the greatest innovations since the invention of the automobile," says Dr Weber. "The concept we have created allows its users to regain the time lost in traffic jams to relax, talk to friends or catch up with work while the vehicle gets on with the job of driving," he adds.
Mercedes-Benz F 015: Exterior design
Because this is an autonomous vehicle that is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, it doesn't have to conform to the constraints of typical car design. There is no need for a big bonnet to house an engine for example, so the team had free range to create something completely new. It measures just shorter than the current generation long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class, features rear-hinged doors that open up and outwards to 90-degrees, enormous 26-inch alloy wheels and aluminium encased windows that shut out the hectic hubbub of the modern world. "The exterior design is completely revolutionary," explains Dr Weber as he walks us around the gleaming creation. "The smooth lines and clutter-free body are good indicators of what some of our luxury vehicles could look like in the future," he adds while simultaneously chuckling to himself at the frankly gargantuan rims.
Mercedes-Benz F 015: Interior design
A number of Mercedes spokespeople were keen to point out the F 015's role as a "third space", as in a place where people can relax, work and unwind between home and office. That's why the interior has been decked out like an executive lounge rather than a typical car cockpit. The roofline is high, meaning it's light and airy, the four individual seats swivel and slide so all occupants can face each other, while a plethora of eye-tracking gesture and touch-controlled screens allow all aboard to constantly interact with the vehicle, check emails and surf the web.
The only clue that this is a 'car' is the pristine white steering wheel and two aluminium pedals poking out from the driver's footwell.
Mercedes-Benz F 015: Technology
Where do we start? The F 015 features enough on-board gadgetry to sink a small and very high-tech ship. The interior is basically a 360-degree amphitheatre of high definition touch-screen displays that can pull in information from smartphones, provide details of passing landmarks or project a live video feed from the outside world. Then there is the 'floating' centre console that allows any occupant to adjust the destination of the vehicle when it is in autonomous mode or change the various driving modes (sporty, comfortable etc).
Next-gen technology doesn't just appear inside the cockpit, as the neat LED exterior displays not only look the business but also interact with surroundings. For example, when the vehicle is in autonomous mode the lights glow blue, flick it into driving mode and the displays pulse white. If a pedestrian steps in front of the car, sensors can track their every movement and even display a warning via the rear LED displays so following vehicles don't attempt a risky overtake.
Perhaps the coolest party trick is the F 015's ability to project a zebra crossing onto the road ahead via laser technology, signalling to pedestrians that it is safe to cross. It can even give audible cues thanks to an on-board loudspeaker that are simultaneously courteous and scarily similar in tone to orders dished out by Robocop. And the piece de la resistance? A rear-mounted QR code that when scanned, gives passers-by (and potentially the law) information on the vehicle
Mercedes-Benz F 015: Verdict
It's difficult to look at the F 015 and not dismiss it as some science-fantasy concept car but the CES demonstration proved that much of the interior and exterior technology actually works. Dr. Weber even wowed the Las Vegas crowds by driving the machine up and down the strip on the evening prior to the first show day. "Autonomous driving will not happen overnight; it will be a gradual development that takes time," he explained. "We already have so many autonomous features in our current cars, such as lane-keep assist and radar adaptive cruise control, that it is not a case of developing the technology further but rather legislation and the customer catching up."
So, don't expect to see this gleaming executive toy in showrooms any time soon but Dr. Weber is convinced Mercedes will be able to offer automatic driving and autonomous parking features by the end of the decade.