Mercedes-Benz mbrace, a new telematics platform that Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) launched recently, is the first such system to have a companion mobile application. The app lets registered mbrace customers lock and unlock vehicle doors as well as locate their vehicle from within the vicinity of one mile. The app also lets owners contact their preferred Mercedes-Benz dealership or locate dealers in the U.S. by proximity. It provides dealer name, address, phone number and even pinpoints their location on a map. The click-to-call functionality allows for easy access to the mbrace Customer Response Center, Mercedes-Benz Customer Assistance Center and Mercedes-Benz Financial. Users must be active Mercedes-Benz mbrace subscribers to use the companion mobile application.
The origins of mbrace
The predecessor to mbrace, Tele Aid, was standard equipment on most Mercedes-Benz vehicles since the telematics system made its debut in the 2000 S-Class. Services included automatic collision notification — when an airbag is deployed or a seatbelt tensioner retracted, it would send a signal to an emergency response center that would in turn contact the owner of the vehicle and then dispatch the necessary emergency services. There was also an SOS button, which allowed those in distress to report their situation and a number of other related services.
OnStar had released similar services about a year-and-a-half prior to that. One of the key distinctions for the Tele Aid service, however, was that Mercedes-Benz saw this as core to the brand and therefore made it standard across its model lines.
Soon, many competitors started to offer similar services and Mercedes-Benz then began to focus on stepping forward and being an innovator in vehicle telematics. This was done in part by aligning with a service provider, Hughes Telematics, to handle the backend.
Ultimately, the goal was to create “a more connected car,” says Robert Policano, who is a specialist in Services Development in the Advanced Planning Group at MBUSA. For the U.S. division of the global manufacturer, this meant looking beyond the core safety features that had always been deemed important to the future of automobiles — being connected to the cloud, motoring infrastructure and other vehicles via the Internet — in order to make the time spent in the vehicle more entertaining, more productive, safer and, ultimately, more efficient.
To that end a new Mercedes-Benz telematics platform, mbrace, was launched on Nov. 16, 2009. The primary goal is to “send a signal” to dealers and the general marketplace that Mercedes-Benz was moving beyond Tele Aid.
The mbrace in-car system consists of three buttons (pictured at right): SOS, for emergencies; Wrench, for roadside assistance; and i-Button, for all other services. Through the i-Button users can access information and connections to all the other services that are available “off board,” such as getting information about the vehicle, checking on the weather, traffic assistance and navigation assistance. With the traffic configurator, for example, users can configure up to 20 different routes. They can also set up alerts for traffic thresholds so they can automatically be notified by email, SMS or phone. Subscribers to the mbrace service can also access the same system through a password-protected mbrace subscriber site.
Benefits of the mbrace mobile apps
The mbrace iPhone and Blackberry applications represent a third way to interact with the in-car telematics system. These mobile applications were ultimately designed to complement the mbrace subscriber site. The iPhone app currently includes a subset of the functionality available to mbrace customers on the subscriber site, but those are the ones that are most relevant to customers including remote door lock/unlock and vehicle finder. The iPhone app features one-button access to such services as the Mercedes-Benz mbrace Response Center, Customer Assistance Center or Mercedes-Benz Financial. The app also includes a dealership locator that allows customers to contact their preferred dealer or find the retail location nearest them.
“Since 2008, the launch of 2G apps has exploded. Everyone in business is looking at this new technology and asking themselves is there some way we can leverage it to enhance our customer experiences — or our business,” says Policano. “We [MBUSA] knew that we’d be launching mbrace this fall and we were thinking it would be terrific if we had an application that gave our customers a new level of convenience in interacting with their vehicle.”
While Policano concedes that there have been more than a few apps launched in 2009 that are “automotive-centric,” mbrace is the only app from a vehicle manufacturer that lets the user interact directly with a vehicle. (Zipcar has similar functionality from its iPhone app.)
The idea quickly garnered internal support at MBUSA and development on the iPhone formally started in the spring of ’09. Initial research was conducted on what kinds of mobile devices Mercedes-Benz owners had adopted. These were predominantly iPhones and the newer Blackberry models. This, along with reports on leading handheld and smartphone devices, also informed the decision to ultimately support both the iPhone and Blackberry platforms with native applications.
Roughly 65 percent of smartphones in the market at that time were within the target model set, according to Policano. “We were trying to develop for the masses, in essence, but with a skew toward Mercedes-Benz owners and what they were carrying.” Exceptions to this are some earlier-generation smartphones and handhelds that are not GPS-enabled.
As for future mobile platforms? The intent is to continue to expand, says Policano. As far as whether or not Mercedes–Benz will continue to focus on native applications, or take a broader device-agnostic mobile web approach, still remains an open question.
• Mercedes-Benz USA and Hughes Telematics Launch New Telematics Service: mbrace™; PRNewswire, 11.16.09
• Mercedes-Benz Launches Digital Tele Aid; MBUSA press release, 11.19.04
• Mercedes-Benz site for mbrace subscribers
• Zipcar iPhone App
• mbrace Comparison Chart [pdf]
All images appear courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA