SEATTLE -- The Mercedes-Benz A class is the new CLA.
The compact sedan, expected to arrive in U.S. showrooms early next year, is Mercedes-Benz's new "gateway" vehicle -- designed to draw the next generation of customers to the luxury brand.
Mercedes has primed the A class to lure millennials -- not just with a low $30,000 sticker price, but with an artificial-intelligence-driven, voice-activated digital assistant.
The Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX, is a user interface that learns routines and preferences of the driver. MBUX can recognize patterns and predict navigation routes and radio stations based on time of day.
"Typically, you have to learn the car," Bernhard Glaser, Mercedes' director of product management, told Automotive News at a media presentation on MBUX here. "But with MBUX, the car learns you."
MBUX, which will populate across the Mercedes-Benz model line over time, is part of a wave of smart infotainment platforms that's attracting significant investment from automakers.
Advanced voice-recognition systems, cloud computing, AI technology and faster computing have made robust and full-featured infotainment systems possible.
On Sept. 6, BMW introduced Intelligent Personal Assistant, an AI-powered system that can control vehicle settings, navigation and entertainment systems. The technology platform is expected to roll out next year.
Technology is fueling auto sales, especially among younger consumers. Half, or more, of drivers are willing to sacrifice on vehicle color, style and brand to get the latest technology, while a third would even sacrifice safety, according to a 2017 survey by Cox Automotive.
Mercedes hopes its MBUX system will grab the fleeting attention of millennials.
"Typically, you would launch a new feature in a higher-level car," Glaser said. "But, we decided to bring this feature in our A class because we want to attract younger and more tech-savvy buyers."
MBUX, powered by Nvidia's Parker mobile processor, uses natural language processing technology that does not require memorizing predetermined commands. Using voice control, MBUX can activate and adjust a host of vehicle settings, including interior lighting and temperature controls.
MBUX can comprehend indirect commands. For instance, "Hey, Mercedes, I'm freezing" raises the temperature. "Hey, Mercedes, do I need an umbrella tomorrow?" pops up the weather forecast on the standard 7-inch or optional 10.25-inch touch-screen display.
"We believe that driver distraction is a huge topic ... and that voice is the best way of interacting with the system," said Nils Schanz, head of user interaction and voice control at Daimler.
Over time, and via over-the-air software updates, MBUX will become more intelligent and interactive. The system will be able to differentiate voices and allow multiple people to interact with it, for instance, Schanz said.
For luxury brands, the in-vehicle user experience is as important as vehicle design. That's driving automakers such as BMW and Mercedes to develop infotainment platforms in-house rather than rely solely on out-of-the-box solutions such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
"To make it very brand-specific, to make it Mercedes-Benz-like, that's a unique thing," Schanz said. "This you can only do if you develop from scratch."
Internally developed solutions allow automakers better control of the product development cycle and enable deeper integration with the vehicle.
Schanz added: "We know our customers best, so we exactly know what they want."