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We're here at the New York International Auto Show and the if there is one thread connecting each of the automakers on hand its connected cars. Nowhere was that theme more prominently on display than at Mercedes Benz's booth where they were showing off the latest iteration of their mbrace system, mbrace 2. mbrace has been around since roughly 2008, but up until now has been geared towards safety features. With mbrace 2 Mercedes is looking to expand its system to include cloud-based apps and an integrated 3G data connection. The cost of all of this? Just $14.99 a month for the apps and unlimited data. We were able to spend some time with a prototype of the mbrace 2 system running on a kiosk and can gladly report that it is a breeze to use thanks to its intuitive controls.
The system, which will debut in early May in the SL 65 AMG, relies on a standard in-dash display, as well as a rotary knob and a function buttons. The fact that the display isn't a touchscreen may seem jarring in this day and age, but we actually found the rotary knob provided a great amount of control. We can also see the knob as being a more practical feature than a touchscreen, especially when you're traveling over bumpy roads that may cause you to accidentally choose the wrong option.
Mercedes representatives told us that the decision to include a data connection in the car, rather than through a tethered cellphone, because the data connection will always be on. The connection also serves as a means for Mercedes dealers to pull information down about your vehicle's health. With a tethered connection, that information would only be available when you cellphone was in the car with you. The included data connection also provides Mercedes with the ability to push system updates to customers' vehicles, rather than forcing them to visit a dealership for an upgrade.
During our time with mbrace 2 the data connection was spotty at best, a result of the interference from other connections in the convention center. Mercedes, however, assures us that the connection will be much more stable when it is installed in an actual vehicle.
In addition to the data connection, mbrace 2 is bringing with it a host of new Mercedes-developed apps including a Mercedes specific Facebook app, as well as Yelp, Google Local Search and AP News feeds. Each app features a standard operating mode, for when the car is stationary, and a reduced operating mode for when you are moving. The AP News app, for example, will provide users with complete articles when the while is parked, but when moving, you'll only be able to view article headline. If you happen to spot a particularly interesting article, you can have mbrace email the text to you.
The Google Search app allows you to search for the location of various points of interest in your area and immediately bring the directions up on your system's navigation panel. Perhaps the coolest feature of the Google Search app is its Google Street View integration. To use it, simply find the location you want to navigate to, right lick using the joystick, and select Street View. The image will then be displayed on your vehicle's display. Turn the control knob left or right and you can rotate the image a full 360 degrees just as you would while using Street View in your web browser.
Mercedes says they have an army of 40 developers working on apps for their vehicles and expects to release a slew more in the coming months.
mbrace 2 App
In adition to its in-car functionality, mbrace 2 will also mark the launch of Mercedes' new mbrace smartphone app. Available for both iOS and Android devices, the app allows users to unlock their vehicle, activate the horn and lights, call for concierge service and remotely lock and unlok their doors. But the killer feature of the new app is its Valet Minder, which allows you to set up a virtual fence around a certain area via your smartphone. If your vehicle goes outside of the fence boundary, it wil send an automated alert to the app telling you where the car has gone. It's a great feature for using with both valet's, in case they have dreams of going all "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" on your ride, or if you have a young driver in the house.
From what we've seen, Mercedes may have one of the most comprehensive in-car tech offerings on its hands. We're a bit warey of the idea of having a 3G connection strapped to your vehicle, but the benefits of having at least some Internet access with you at all times are a huge plus. The fact that the company is developing apps for its own vehicles is an even more impressive feat. Still we'll reserve our final judgement until we see the system running in a vehicle in early May.