Dash of difference


It was obvious to anyone at this year’s Brisbane Truck Show that even after three years of solid growth in the wake of its new model range, Mercedes-Benz has not let the grass grow under its feet. Not for a moment. Right now, for instance, Benz is up to its beak in a detailed validation program of new and enhanced technologies which, if all goes to plan, will make the star shine even brighter

 

A few years back at the Tokyo Motor Show, Daimler’s Japanese juggernaut Fuso had heads turning with an electrically-driven concept truck sporting a swag of futuristic features.

Fuso called the truck ‘Vision One’ and appropriately perhaps, one of its many technological highlights was a digital mirror system of outboard cameras feeding images onto ‘mirrors’ mounted on the A-pillars inside the cab.

While European reports several years earlier had confirmed Daimler’s development of a high-tech alternative to conventional glass mirrors, Fuso’s preview of the system now known simply as ‘MirrorCam’ was the first sight for many people, including a small bunch of Australian truck writers at the 2017 Tokyo show.

In just a minute or two inside the cab, it was easy to be impressed with the technology and the potential. Nonetheless, it seemed unlikely that Australia would be on the radar anytime soon for a trial of this radical and somewhat futuristic mirror system, let alone seeing it offered as part of the local line-up. Or at least that’s how it seemed until this year’s Brisbane Truck Show where Mercedes-Benz took the technological bull by the horns and showcased a truck equipped with a string of advanced new features headed by ‘MirrorCam’.

Best of all, as local Benz boffins were eager to point out, this was far more than just a superficial attempt to impress punters with a tricked-up show truck bearing hi-tech toys. No, this was the real deal and if feedback and findings from an upcoming validation process were up to scratch, then evolution based on vastly upgraded electrical architecture would soon lead to the introduction of several new features. Four, in fact!   

Obviously enough, MirrorCam is top of the list simply because there has never been anything quite like it. At least, not on trucks, and while the sight of a truck without external mirrors might seem like an elephant without ears, there’s no question the end result is a far more streamlined, if somewhat unusual, presence.

Current mirror housings impose significantly on driver’s vision, particularly at roundabouts and the like

That’s certainly the view in Mercedes-Benz’s case where the current standard mirror housings are huge, causing forward vision – notably on the driver’s right-hand side approaching roundabouts and the like – to be one of few criticisms of Benz’s new breed.

Moving on: second among the futuristic foursome is what Benz calls the multi-media cockpit, which in place of the normal array of gauges and instrument packages uses two high-resolution tablet-style flat screens to control and deliver a vast amount of detail. What’s more, states a press release, the type of information ‘can be customised for driver preference, much like displays in prestige Mercedes-Benz cars’.

Not just Benz cars and trucks, though. The new digital dash layout has been also spotted on at least one of 20 Freightliner Cascadias now headed for pre-launch trials in our part of the world.

Also part of the multi-media package is an upgraded steering wheel with ‘soft touch’ control buttons that allow the driver to scroll through the various types of information and settings displayed on the screens.

Third on the agenda is ‘Predictive Powertrain Control’ – a route mapping initiative utilising GPS technology and the truck’s enhanced computing power to determine the most effective fuel and performance outputs for various stages of a pre-recorded route. In effect, and with the system simply engaged as an extension of cruise control, it logs the terrain of different routes and dependent on load, subsequently tailors the powertrain – including gearshifts – to dispense the most efficient balance of fuel consumption and performance as the truck again travels the same roads.

Last, but certainly not least, on the list is the system Mercedes-Benz calls ‘Active Brake Assist 5’, described as an autonomous emergency braking package specifically designed to detect (and protect) pedestrians. Operating at speeds under 50km/h, this latest version of Benz’s advanced braking technology is said to be capable of delivering 100 per cent emergency braking – that is, bringing the truck to a complete stop – and according to several insiders, is ideally suited to the suburbs and shopping centres where so many modern Mercs spend their days and nights mixing with insentient pedestrians.  

However, as already indicated, none of these features are yet set in stone for Benz’s local line-up. Even so, whereas the strong likelihood is that each of the four innovations will be ultimately available in one form or another, the first priority for the Mercedes mob is to verify each system’s appeal, value and suitability to Australian operators.

MirrorCam delivers a dramatic improvement

CUSTOMER FEEDBACK

Benz insiders insist that just as a long period of in-house testing and customer trials preceded the Australian launch of the current generation of Mercedes-Benz trucks three years ago – a critical factor in the largely trouble-free introduction of the new range – so will a thorough local assessment program determine the operational value of each of these four advanced features as Mercedes-Benz strives to keep the evolutionary ball rolling.

Furthermore, and despite assertions there has been ‘very high uptake’ in Europe of these latest developments, along with high levels of reliability derived from a significantly upgraded electrical platform, Mercedes-Benz’s local leaders fervently assert that nothing is being taken for granted.

As they openly agree, and as long experience has countless times shown, good news in Europe or America doesn’t necessarily translate well here. In short, nothing beats local testing in real conditions.

Indeed, it’s an adamant Mercedes-Benz Australia truck boss Michael May and his lofty lieutenant Andrew Assimo who declare that the feedback and findings from an extensive evaluation program consisting of 20 validation vehicles working in a range of applications with different operators and other interested parties over the next six months or more, will determine the extent of each system’s inclusion in the Benz range. In effect, whether some or all of each system’s features will be made available and which ones will be included as standard or offered as options.

"There’s still plenty to be decided," May comments, "but the important thing is that it’ll largely be feedback from operators which makes the decisions.

"We’re certainly excited by the opportunities," he continues, describing the range of new features as "a componentry candy store" that has already met with strong interest from those truck operators given early insights into the potential benefits for safety and operational efficiencies.

Compact and streamlined compared to current mirror assemblies, MirrorCam cameras are mounted out of the way above the doors

Yet, arguably the most basic question of all is: ‘Will the market accept such a radical departure as a truck with no mirrors hanging off the sides?’

May and Assimo say they’re expecting a wide range of opinions on MirrorCam but likewise, see significant attributes for an innovation that clearly challenges the status quo by imparting a high level of modern technology into a critical component that over numerous generations has generally grown bigger and bulkier rather than fundamentally better.

What’s more, all these new features come at a time when Mercedes-Benz is well equipped to push the technological envelope to new levels and in the process, maintain the momentum which has seen the Benz brand climb back to considerable prominence in the Australian heavy-duty market.

A candid May agrees that while sales figures are still growing, the rush that followed the new truck’s introduction three years ago has now abated to more consistent levels.

"The growth now needs to be sustainable and innovations such as these certainly have the ability to boost and sustain our numbers," he asserts.

Equally, however, he was quick to cite improved service factors as a definite contributor to Mercedes-Benz’s ongoing sales momentum, and just as quick to confirm that while major fleets have continued to keep Benz high on the shopping list, the goal now is to add more smaller fleets and single truck operators to the customer base.

What’s more, May and Assimo insist that many of the new features now being evaluated offer benefits to businesses of all sizes, particularly in the ability to streamline the cost-effectiveness of service agreements and enhance the delivery of operational information from the truck directly to the operator.

"With this new electrical architecture, the connectivity between the truck and the customer has never been greater and these days, that’s a benefit to all operators, big or small," says Assimo.

On the inside, it didn’t take long to be at ease with image screens mounted on the A-pillars. However, a convex main screen may struggle for acceptance.

ON CAMERA

According to details from Mercedes-Benz, there are more than 60 innovations that differentiate this updated generation of trucks from the current crop, even though there are no changes to the powertrain or the fundamental structure of the cab.

Admittedly, the changes range from minor to major and obviously enough, the standout attractions are the four features already mentioned. Of these, MirrorCam is undeniably the most exciting and arguably the most contentious despite the fact it’s already validated for Australian use and, according to information from Mercedes-Benz, "surpasses the legal requirements regarding field of view".

While it remains to be seen if drivers and operators actually accept MirrorCam as an alternative to conventional glass mirrors, there are undeniable benefits and the biggest of all is the notable improvement to vision. Or more accurately, vision directly to the driver’s right.

Here, for instance, is a comment from a road test report of a Mercedes-Benz 2643 model, which appeared in the January 2017 issue of ATN, expressing the need for an improvement in mirror design:

"Vision through a deep windscreen and large, electrically operated side mirrors wins high marks except for the fact that like so many trucks nowadays, broad mirrors significantly impede vision through the front quarters, particularly on the approach to roundabouts. So surely, somewhere in Daimler’s vast design vaults there’s someone with the ability to design a mirror and mounting system able to at least partially overcome this annoying and potentially ‘confronting’ issue."

That ‘someone’ is obviously the Daimler design team responsible for development of MirrorCam, and while the technology behind the system’s creation is no doubt extensive, in physical terms there are surprisingly few components.

For instance, from inside the cab of a high-roof 2653 demo unit fitted with all the latest goodies, Mercedes-Benz Trucks product and planning manager Noel Griffiths explains there are basically just four major parts to MirrorCam – two external cameras, one on each side of the cab above the doors, and on the inside, two 380mm (15-inch) deep screens mounted on each A-pillar.

An impressively compact and modern design, the cameras not only dispense with the visual intrusion of bulky mirror housings but also deliver an unquestionable improvement in aerodynamic efficiency, which, as Benz insiders are quick to mention, leads to lower fuel consumption.

According to some (namely the bloke writing this), the absence of big mirror housings also diminishes the wind noise that can be surprisingly prevalent under certain conditions. 

What’s more, given their slim stature and closeness to the cab in comparison to standard mirrors, the cameras are far less likely to be damaged and even if they happen to be struck, they’re mounted on sturdy folding arms to reduce the level of damage. What’s more, Mercedes-Benz says replacement cost of the camera assembly is actually comparable to that of the existing mirror assembly; a fact which suggests the cameras are deliberately priced to appeal or that the existing mirror package is particularly expensive. A combination of both, perhaps.

Additionally, the camera lenses are automatically heated when temperature drops to 150C.

Absence of large external mirrors is an unusual sight but MirrorCam has undeniable advantages. What’s more, Mercedes-Benz says camera replacement cost is comparable to current mirror assemblies.

As for the assertion that ‘all-round vision is significantly improved’ over conventional mirrors, I confess to a rare touch of trepidation steering the test unit out of Daimler’s Mulgrave (Vic) headquarters. Like so many others, I am a creature of long established habits and when it’s all boiled down, the idea of travelling anywhere without a big chunk of glass to see down each side of a truck and trailer wasn’t altogether appealing.

Whatever, with instruction from Griffiths on the various features of the system, including easy mirror angle adjustment with a door-mounted control knob similar to what’s already in use, it took a stunningly short amount of time in suburban and freeway traffic to be at ease with ‘mirrors’ on the inside of the cab rather than outside. Indeed, it was evident from the outset that the absence of big mirror housings delivers a remarkable improvement in all-round vision.

There is, however, one aspect of this initial version of MirrorCam which was not only surprising but also the one factor with more potential for driver dislike than any other. A convex main mirror.

Like most ‘normal’ mirror assemblies these days, the MirrorCam screen is split between a main mirror and a spotter; in this case, the main upper portion of the screen commands about 70 percent of the mirror, with the remaining lower section being a wide angle spotter. That’s all fine except that unlike Europe which is totally committed to convex mirrors, our market has historically used flat glass main mirrors and that’s a preference which is highly unlikely to change anytime soon.

The simple fact is that if you’re unaccustomed to convex mirrors – as the vast majority of Australian truck drivers are – routine functions like reversing and judging distance from the back of the trailer can be considerably challenging, at least until familiarity eventually sets in.

More to the point though, if Mercedes-Benz insists on retaining a convex main section for the Australian market, it will be the only heavy-duty brand to do so and it’s subsequently a fair bet that driver acceptance and ultimately, customer uptake of this exceptionally advanced and largely appealing revolution in rear vision performance will be significantly limited.

Back on the positives, however, MirrorCam at least offers some helpful driver aids including distance lines in the main screen, which depict points 30, 50 and 100 metres behind the driver’s seat. There’s another line which aligns with the end of the trailer and can be adjusted for various trailer lengths by the control knob on the driver’s door.    

Moreover, when reverse gear is engaged, the system automatically switches to a wider ‘manoeuvring view’, which can also be selected manually using the door control panel.

Perhaps even more impressive is a trailer panning function where, on tight turns left or right, the camera automatically tracks wide to show the trailer’s passage. So, whereas a conventional glass mirror is filled with little more than the side of a trailer on, say, a tight 90 degree left-hand turn, MirrorCam provides a view right to the end of the trailer, allowing the driver to judge whether they’re cutting across a gutter, or worse, a parked car.  

In short, there’s a lot to like about MirrorCam. Heaps, in fact, including the ability to automatically adjust between night and day, and alter brightness according to different light conditions.

All in the family. Multi-media cockpit relies on advanced new electrical architecture while the design draws extensively from the latest Mercedes-Benz cars.

Still, a few hours spent behind the wheel in suburban and freeway traffic, in daylight hours and good weather, and with a single trailer in tow rather than a B-double, is well short of a definitive evaluation. Nonetheless, an adamant Griffiths says in-house trials have demonstrated MirrorCam’s attributes any time of the night or day, in fine weather and foul.

For now, we’ll just have to take his word for it but there’s undeniable confidence in the camp that MirrorCam is one of several valuable steps in maintaining the momentum that over the past three years has put the Benz brand well and truly back in the heavy-duty limelight.

It would, however, be a brave and possibly foolhardy move to offer MirrorCam as an immediate and total replacement for conventional mirrors. More appropriate right now would be to offer the new system as a low cost, even no cost, alternative to standard mirrors.

May and Assimo are understandably non-committal at the moment, again citing customer feedback over the next six months or so as the determining factor.

"So what would you choose, conventional mirrors or MirrorCam?" asked a serious Assimo.

After a few seconds of thought, the answer came easily. "Definitely MirrorCam, but only if the main part of the screen isn’t convex."

Clear view. A photo that shows just how much a driver’s view is improved without big external mirrors.

A DASH OF DIFFERENCE

Another enticing part of the new package is the multi-media cockpit and again, it’s an evolutionary and somewhat radical departure from anything currently on the market. 

Much like MirrorCam, two flat screens are the main elements of the new system: a 300mm (12-inch)-wide primary screen directly in front of the driver, which can be easily configured with an extensive range of different instrument formats determined by the driver, and to the left, a secondary 260mm (10.25-inch)-wide screen with a bank of soft-touch buttons for setting a wide range of functions. Wisely, the soft-touch buttons are an addition to, rather than replacement for, existing control switches.

The new steering wheel also plays a critical role in the new system’s operation, with a scroll button on the right arm of the wheel used for settings on the primary screen and an identical button on the left arm for the secondary screen.

While it would take half the space of this magazine to list in detail all the functions of the multi-media package, have no doubt that the extent of the information and settings available in the new system is immense, meaning familiarity will take time. Still, it’s a relatively intuitive system and although the level of complexity is increased over the current layout, modern minds are sure to adapt quickly.

Other notable and entirely worthwhile features of the new configuration include an electronic park brake and hill-hold function, and a ‘smart’ electronic key, which simply needs to be anywhere inside the cab to allow the truck to be started. The key also comes with a button to cycle through tests of all the combination’s lights.

And still on lights, the latest models have bi-xenon headlights with an automatic high beam function, integrated daytime running lights, and full LED tail-lights, side markers and indicators.

Overall, and with due regard for the fact that customer feedback will play a definitive part in the final configurations of these new systems, there’s no escaping their potential to deliver an evolutionary step to a more technologically astute truck.

And in the process, an even better Benz.

Among a wide range of updates are an electronic park brake and hill-hold function. Simple and smart.

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