By Henry Phillips
on 12.4.13
Photo by Henry Phillips

Here’s a quick quiz for all of the motoring buffs out there: Which carmaker was the first to incorporate crumple zones into its designs (1952)? How about the first to feature anti-lock brakes (1978)? What about the first car ever built (1886)?

MORE MERCEDES-BENZ: Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG | Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG | Mercedes-Benz CLA

If you said Mercedes-Benz you’d be right on the money. Throughout the automaker’s 127-year history it’s helped define the automotive landscape unlike any other. But things have changed since 1886; mechanical engineering feats like air conditioning, power steering and fuel injection have given way to computer-based tech advancements like GPS and automated parallel parking. It should be no surprise that Mercedes has kept up with the times. In 2013 they released the first car with no incandescent light bulbs, inside or out; they built the first driverless cars in 1987. They were also the first automaker to the intellectual northern-California gold rush that was Silicon Valley, arriving in Palo Alto in 1994 and rubbing shoulders with innovators like Xerox, Google, Apple and hundreds of others.

The new branch was an extremely important one for Mercedes. They (correctly) figured that many in-car advances over the next decades wouldn’t be hardware churned out by massive machines in hazy factories but rather software that had to be engineered and influenced by bold thinkers in an environment that fosters creativity. Mercedes has since leveraged relationships with surrounding companies like Apple and Tesla to improve the tech that the driver sees — like smartphone integration — and the tech behind the scenes — like electric drivetrains and smarter accident avoidance. Mercedes has been innovating in California for nearly two decades, but they’ve decided to bolster their Silicon Valley efforts with their new Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) headquarters in Sunnyvale, California.

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The new office is a sweeping 71,000 square foot building sheathed in green glass that could easily be mistaken for the headquarters of a new (and well funded) tech startup, save for the 40 Benzes and 10-foot-tall illuminated and rotating star out front. You get more of the same Silicon Valley fare on the interior, with brightly colored walls and open workspaces interspersed with game rooms, juice bars and an ice cream freezer. Despite the sharp contemporary design and airy interior, there’s a subtle restraint that makes it clear a century-old company is behind the curtain. It’s like your old man with his hat turned backwards. Throughout the building there are hints of impressive thinking in the collaborative workspace — things like Nook e-readers in every conference room that employees are encouraged to “hack” and the whiteboard walls that might as well be Will Hunting’s windows.

The focus of the Sunnyvale arm of MB’s global R&D operation focuses on user interface, user experience, connectivity between the car and the user’s electronics, and recently, autonomous driving. It’s already produced impressive technologies like Car2x — the exchange of information about breakdowns, accidents, and hazards between cars so each can react accordingly — integration with wearable devices like the Pebble smart watch and Google Glass, and native apps like Google Places to improve navigation efficiency. The Digital Drive Style smartphone app integrates much of your smartphones functionality with your car and their new “Car-in-the-cloud” gives drivers access to data including recent trips, tire pressure, and how many passengers were on their last trip, among other things from their smartphone or PC (don your tinfoil hats…now).

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These innovations are almost all exclusively software-based, and they’re also completely relevant to what many younger potential Benz customers care about. They’re the sort of features that will make people seek out Mercedes vehicles — and, because they’ll be found even in Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level models like the CLA, a large section of customers will be able to access them.

But what if younger people aren’t even thinking about driving? Many automakers’ largest fear has been “millenials”, who — according to a bunch of studies — don’t particularly care about driving (and would apparently much rather walk or just sit at home and play Playstation). Mercedes’ answer is to go digital. As part of the launch of the latest Gran Turismo driving game for Playstation 3, Mercedes was asked to craft a game-exclusive car that would exude performance and the MB design ethos. Created not too far south of Sunnyvale in Carlsbad, California, the Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo is a flowing, masculine ode to speed and — lucky for us — a 1:1 scale model of the car was on hand at the opening of the MBRDNA.

It’s a beautiful thing. Looking less concept car-ish than you might initially think, the Vision Gran Turismo a study in classic sports car design with an LED studded grill. The long, flowing front end, sweeping roofline and a tapered back reminiscent of a 21st century Jaguar e-type are all rooted firmly in the company’s history. The only thing that’s really out of place — and is for whatever reason omnipresent on concept cars — is the comically flared wheel arches and chrome wheels stolen from a Nelly video shoot circa 2004. These minor gripes aside, it’s a fantastic study into Mercedes-Benz’s design language and visions for future performance cars.

There’s a reason Mercedes’ vision for the future was unveiled at their Sunnyvale office. Just like the Vision Gran Turismo, MBRDNA is innovating by changing the way we think about and interact with our vehicles. Each is inspiring progress, drawing on more than a century of heritage, and leading the auto industry forward towards its next great leap — just like Mercedez Benz has always done.

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