29 Aug 2013

Head-On Collisions, Steve Jobs, and the 2014 Mercedes S-Class

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Upon arriving home from work, a husband comes in the front door of his house and is immediately smothered by his loving wife.

“I’m so relieved you’re home safe!” she says into his ear, hugging and kissing him. “I was so worried for you. I saw a report on the news that some maniac was driving down the highway in the wrong direction!”

“I know honey,” the husband exclaims, “but it wasn’t just one car – there were hundreds of them!”

Okay, maybe not exactly the cutting edge of comedy, yet I couldn’t help but remember this punch line when looking over the new 2014 S-Class. Though I haven’t gotten my mits on one, the spec sheet is mighty impressive. Merc’s redesigned super executive sedan has features like seatbelt airbags, dual split-screen 12.3-inch digital displays, cloud connectivity to Facebook and Google, reverse-flow seat ventilation fans and a hot massage function with 14 separate air bladders, allegedly developed with physiotherapists and psychologists (seriously). It actually has something called ‘Magic Body Control’ – with a price tag north of $90,000 due at launch, it’d better pull rabbits from hats.

What has me quaking is not the 2014 S-Class’ new Night View Assist PLUS system (which shines a lamp on animals in the road, then strobe lights them into an epileptic seizure), but rather the string of half-cocked imitations that surely will follow. Mercedes’ powerhouse flagship is the oracle of automotive technology – in 1959, the S-Class was the first car with designed crumple zones; standard air-ride suspension in 1966; anti-lock brakes in 1978; soundproofed windows in 1991, and so on and so forth. This means that, within the next year or two, every automaker will be attempting to mimic these technologies into their own more affordable, more accessible models. Therein lies the problem…

It’s true that features once exclusive to those Bentleys and Porsches of the world now come standard on vehicles with a GM badge. Because of this, there exists a large constituency of car buyers and enthusiasts who now believe that the only reason to buy something upmarket is a chronic case of badge snobbery, with occasional pangs of cynicism. While I’m a staunch proponent of equal access to technology (my father was sure to impress his 1960s ‘power to the people’ mentality onto the firstborn son), the real difference between a Ford Focus and an S-Class is the not the volume of features, but whether they actually work.

Pondering this led me to watch the late Steve Jobs deliver his keynote speech at the iPhone’s worldwide unveiling in 2007. Admittedly, I am not a Jobs worshipper. Yet I was taken by how he emphasized again and again the product’s functionality, and that any features not intuitive should (and were) eradicated. The problem with other ‘smartphones’, he said, is that they weren’t ‘smart’ at all.

For more than a half-decade, scores of mobile devices, ranging from one-uppers to blatant rip-offs, have tried besting the iPhone; none have been successful.

Such has been the case for so many affordable sedans of late, with manufacturers seemingly determined to install upmarket bits into standard cars. With the limitations of price-point budgeting, sans extensive R&D, those automakers outside the premium segment have mucked up a host of innovations into shoddy imitation. Hell, even those within the upper realm have gotten a bit big for their britches on more than one occasion.

Insert obligatory BMW iDrive joke here.

This fetishizing of features only serves to appease two crowds: dealers attempting to persuade new car buyers with a spectacular (looking) sales brochure, and those in the Look-What-It-Can-Do Club who live solely on the one-time ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of their family and friends. For most consumers, badly-cloned luxury technologies merely complicate ownership, inhibit the driving experience, and leave hundreds of additional parts (all made on the cheap, of course) to malfunction and cost thousands to repair.

If Steve Jobs should be commended for anything, it was his infallible desire for functionality and merciless expectations. When Apple’s original MobileMe cloud system debuted it 2008, it was plagued with syncing bugs and characterized as being an ‘unfinished product’ by reviewers. Jobs called the MobileMe development team in for a meeting and asked, “Can anyone tell me this product is supposed to do?” The designers took turns answering.

“Then why the fuck doesn’t it do that?” he said.

The project lead was then fired on the spot.

My fear is that, with the debut of the new S-Class (and its competition, in tow), Ford will move on to copying night vision and animal strobe lamps instead of reengineering SYNC Touch into a system that actually works properly. Innovation simply for the sake of saying so is spreading entry-level cars too thin; Mercedes has the privilege to engineer hot message seats because it has already mastered the basics. Culinary students don’t take a crack at pâté de foie gras before perfecting oatmeal.

In a recent test by Automobile, infotainment systems by Cadillac, Toyota and Hyundai all failed to top 3 of 5 stars in the Ease of Use category. Analyzing the sharp decline in Initial Quality Study (IQS) last year, J.D. Power pointed to infotainment units, with ‘hands-free systems failing to recognize voice commands’ cited as the single most-reported problem. In fact, owner-reported issues with factory hands-free systems has climbed an appalling 137% over the past four years. I find this to be incredibly disturbing, and indicative of an even more disturbing trend.

No doubt, automakers have already begun tearing apart the 2014 S-Class in a mad dash to replicate some of its features for a nickel on the dollar. But what if the husband from that old joke was right, dangerously facing hundreds of cars with mediocre sat-navs that had haphazardly sent their owners the wrong direction on the freeway.

The punch line wouldn’t be so funny then, would it?

Article by Max Prince

See Max's Speedmonkey columns here and his own website (which is excellent) here