As usual in car world, it’s the Germans who will lead the way, with Mercedes-Benz already working on a new version of its hugely expensive S-Class, equipped with a ‘Vitality Coach’, which will ponder your pupil size, count how often you’re blinking, measure your heart rate and consult with your calendar to see if you’re running late for your next meeting.
If the Coach – who will also follow you around when you’re not in the car, via a ‘Mercedes Me’ app – deduces that you’re tired or stressed, the good Dr Benz will activate its ‘Regeneration’ program.
This involves the use of various scents, carefully ionising the air in the cabin, choosing soothing music and then hammering the relaxation home with one of the car’s almost sensual seat massages (the hot-stone ones, in particular, can cause you to go all Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally).
“By using a combination of sensors and data and artificial intelligence, the car will decide what is best for you.”
If, on the other hand, the Vitality Coach notices you’re blinking a lot and your throttle and steering inputs are a bit slow, it can initiate the Activation Program, with some Rage Against the Machine on the stereo, and one of its more pointedly percussive back poundings.
It might all sound amusing, and even far fetched, but spend a few minutes with Dr Goetz Renner, the head of Mercedes’ deeply German-sounding ‘Fit and Healthy’ program, and you realise it’s as deadly serious as a Crossfit devotee.
“By using a combination of sensors and data and artificial intelligence, the car will decide what is best for you,” Dr Renner, a psychologist by trade, explains.
Making sure you feel happier and healthier when you get out of the car than you did when you got in is now an engineering goal for Benz and, in typical style, it’s been scientifically measuring its success.
“We really have to prove there’s something going on in your body or mind, that it’s not just marketing,” says Dr Renner, who employs a large team of physiotherapists and psychologists, as well as engineers.
“Before the S-Class was launched, we started doing long test drives, with customers driving our car for 500km, wired up to an ECG, measuring brain-waves, pulse, breathing, and then we’d get them to drive the same roads in our competitors’ vehicles.
“We had to prove that your heart rate was better when you were in the S-Class, because your heart rate stands for your resource, your air consumption. So that is our engineering goal; you will be in better shape when you arrive at the end of your drive if you’re in an S-Class.
“Where we’re moving to now is being able to measure all those things without the wires – detecting stress in your body, collecting all your data, knowing if you’re running late, and how much exercise you’ve done that morning.
“Speaking of how much exercise you’ve done that morning, Mercedes will be hassling you about that, too, even when you’re not in the car.”
“This is why we need a lot of computer power, to use all this data, and we need artificial intelligence to react.”
Speaking of how much exercise you’ve done that morning, Mercedes will be hassling you about that, too, even when you’re not in the car, via an app that will provide fitness tips and tutorials.
It’s all part of a holistic, cloud-based ecosystem, designed to form a bond between you and your car, and the Mercedes brand.
“My mission for a Mercedes driver is to provide them with experiences and believe me when I say we are nowhere near the end, yet, of what we can do in terms of massage features,” Dr Renner enthuses.
“I don’t consider a human being like a clock wheel that has be lubricated to make it rotate even faster, I want to take a more holistic approach, I want our cars to provide an experience you can really feel, immediately.”
On the CASE
The whole Fit and Healthy approach is part of Benz’s forward-looking CASE plan, which stands for Connected drive, Autonomous drive, Shared mobility and Electric drive (being happy at the wheel comes under Connected, apparently).
Look closely at those terms and you can see just how far the company is looking into the future, with its goals of autonomous cars, powered by electricity and largely used in a car-sharing fashion.
What Mercedes knows, of course, is that once all cars become autonomous, the way they drive will no longer be their USP (Unique Selling Proposition), it will be much more about the way they make you feel, which is what Fit and Healthy is really all about.
“Once all cars go autonomous, then the interior, the comfort, becomes more important,” Dr Renner says.
“We want to provide quality time in the car, the things we can offer to passengers are getting wider and wider and this will be the differentiating factor.
“It’s what our brand is all about, combining emotion and intelligence; the rational part of what we do deals with driving safely, but we’re going to be about emotion too, about body and mind and wellbeing and regeneration.
“It’s that feeling that the car cares about you, that’s what we’re working towards.”
Sitting is the new smoking
Dr Renner says while the war on smoking has largely been won – ashtrays are no longer standard in cars after all – the next big health battle will be against people’s increasingly dormant lifestyles.
“Sitting is the new smoking, that’s what health experts are saying, and what they’re trying to combat,” he explains.
“Driving is the ultimate sitting activity, but Dr Renner’s team is working on ‘keeping your blood flow and muscle tension optimised’.”
“Our lifestyle is increasingly designed to make us sit, but the human body is designed to move.”
This is a particular challenge for car companies, of course, because driving is the ultimate sitting activity, but Dr Renner’s team is working on “keeping your blood flow and muscle tension optimised”.
The first step will be Motion Seating, set to roll out in the new compact A Class next year (the company’s cheapest cars).
This system senses when you’ve been sitting still too long and moves the seat cushion and seat back just enough to keep you from becoming total couch-potato mash.
Someone to watch over you
Mercedes is working with Phillips on developing a bespoke wearable device, which will be able to monitor your heart rate and exercise, and should also be able to open your car doors for you, and no doubt remotely set the air conditioning and music you require before you get to your garage.
Dr Renner says Phillips is the company’s choice because its pulse monitors are truly “medical grade” and while the ones on an Apple Watch are “fine”, they’re not up to Benz’s standards. Ouch.
What’s coming next will be steering wheels that can replace the slightly dorky wearable watch by sensing your pulse (until such time as steering wheels are redundant themselves, of course), seats that can sense your stress levels, and hugely clever cameras that can monitor your blink rate and pupil dilation and movement.
“The first Vitality Coach will appear in an S-Class in January 2019, while some of the Fit and Healthy features will start to roll out on facelifted models in the middle of this year.”
This method of measuring driver drowsiness has been discussed for years, yet never actually fitted to a production car, but Dr Renner says that’s about to change.
“Blink rate is a good barometer for drowsiness, but in the past the cameras were not ready for use in this way, but we’re getting there now; you can imagine how sophisticated a camera must be to see these tiny changes in your eyes, because the resolution has to be astronomical,” he says.
The future is closer than you think
While much of what Mercedes is discussing sounds futuristic, the first Vitality Coach will appear in an S-Class in January 2019, while some of the Fit and Healthy features will start to roll out on facelifted models in the middle of this year.
While you can already choose from seven different comfort/activation/massage settings in your S-Class, the car will start making ‘intelligent recommendations’ to owners next year.
If you think talking to your car is a novelty now, wait until it starts talking to you, and telling you what to do.
This article originally appeared on CarsGuide.