LAS VEGAS -- Mercedes-Benz basically invented the automobile.
And judging from its new prototype for a self-driving luxury car, it may be an old-guard company like Mercedes -- not a newcomer like Google Inc. -- that reinvents the automobile for the next century.
Yes, Google has captivated the technology world with its toylike, two-seat driverless pods. It plans to begin testing a fleet of them this year on California roads with an eye toward deploying them as a shuttle service around its Silicon Valley home.
But the competing vision of the self-driving car that Mercedes unleashed at the International CES technology convention here last week dwarfed the Google car in size, capability and ambition. Called "F 015 Luxury in Motion," it featured a sleek metal exterior, swiveling seats to enable face-to-face conversations and touch screens for every passenger.
It was outlandishly futuristic -- and yet familiar.
Fundamentally, self-driving cars are a solution to a problem, providing mobility with less risk of human error. But in his CES speech, Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG, argued that they will also become an object of desire -- a private, personal refuge from the crowded cities of the 21st Century.
"Cars will turn into mobile homes in the very best sense of the word," Zetsche said. "They will be exclusive cocoons on wheels that enable people to do exactly what they want or need to do. This is the redefinition of automotive luxury."
That was the familiar part, an acknowledgment of the emotional link between driver and vehicle, human and machine that has endured since Karl Benz tinkered with his Patent-Motorwagen. In that sense, the F 015 gave notice that the auto industry is not just determined but is also technologically well-positioned to craft the self-driving car.