Comdex: Mercedes Benz rolls into town

Forget petrol stations. The German car manufacturer envisions you making stops at info stations, and putting all your car records online

Mercedes Benz threw down the gauntlet to the Comdex crowd today, saying that the automobile is the next frontier for e-commerce and the greatest untapped platform for mobile services in the world. Ken Enders is the car manufacturer's vice president of marketing for the USA, and the first executive from the car industry to keynote at Comdex, but he is sure he will not be the last. The time is now right for a car manufacturer to keynote here and he believes car guys are going to become regular attendees at the annual geek fest.

One of Enders' key messages was that context is king for car-based mobile services.

For Mercedes-Benz this belief has meant that the starting point is the enhancement of the safety and reliability features including online breakdown advice, navigation help, traffic, and weather.

Enders is excited by the potential to deepen the customer relationship with Mercedes Benz drivers. When drivers press the information button on their vehicle they are connected to a human voice, via an embedded mobile phone. There is great potential for this voice of Mercedes Benz to earn greater customer loyalty, said Enders.

Early in the speech Enders established Mercedes Benz as a technology company in its own right that is the equal of many players in the IT industry, illustrating his point by describing his company's products as platforms that contain hundreds of embedded networked chips. That network, he said, is far more robust than anything in the typical data centre.

And unlike its corporate counterpart, this network is built to perform in extreme cold and heat and yet is invisible to its users.

Many technology companies view the car as territory that is rightfully theirs, to be conquered in due course and at their leisure. Enders' keynote talk served to illustrate that the big car firms have their own ideas about that, and are not going to roll over for the PDA crowd.

"As the company that invented the automobile, we look forward to reinventing it in the 21st century," said Enders.

One of the technological strengths that Mercedes Benz and other car firms bring to car-based mobile services is their understanding of telematics, and GPS-based location finding technologies, already present in many Mercedes Benz cars. Combining precise location finding with contextually relevant information services will be the priority in the first wave of mobile services, Enders said.

Sounding like a seasoned Comdex keynote pro, Enders said that what we have seen so far only scratches the surface. He envisages a future in which we will drive through "info-fuelling" stations that will zap the latest Blockbuster movie to your car, or software upgrades to your diagnostic computers, all delivered seamlessly via a Bluetooth-like beam.

Enders also foresees a system of "federated computing", where peer-to-peer networking is possible between vehicles to share vital information.

Speaking to ZDNet after the keynote, Enders described some of the off-car online services that are in the pipeline. A Web site for every Mercedes Benz vehicle will enable owners to manage vital data, service records and other information. This information can then be synced with PDAs and the vehicle itself.

To fully develop car-based mobile services, Enders believes many other players will need to come in and build services, and he believes we'll see many alliances between automobile and technology companies to do that.

See full coverage at ZDNet UK's Comdex Special.

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