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Infotainment face-off: Audi MMI vs. Mercedes-Benz MBUX

Infotainment face-off: Audi MMI vs. Mercedes-Benz MBUX
Autos
David Booth: Who knew in 2001, BMW’s release of iDrive would usher in a new era in automotive entertainment. The very first “infotainment” system was much flawed, extremely cantankerous — I can remember having to call a BMW service technician one time to open the damned doors just because I hit the wrong sequence of buttons —  and intensely complicated. The future, if computer-controlled infotainment was indeed the future, seemed so terribly forbidding.

Fast forward 18 years and touchscreens, voice control, and now even gesture control are not just accepted technologies, but differentiators in the Millennial-seeking marketplace. With powertrains becoming ever more homogenous — pretty much every manufacturer relies on small, turbocharged engines for most of its models’ motivation — the new car battleground is now digital, every automaker looking for that magical combination of simplicity, power, and most of all, entertainment.

We’ve started paying as much attention to what powers the entertainment system as we do the rear wheels, and this is our first head-to-head shootout between onboard computers featuring the two latest entries — Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX system and Audi’s MMI Touch — from two of the automakers who’ve made the most progress in bringing the connected world to the automotive dashboard.

Clayton Seams: That’s right. For the sake of this test, we are going to pretty much ignore the cars these systems come in, and focus solely on the infotainment. The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a brand new model in Canada, and with it comes the equally new Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) system — they hate it when you pronounce it “em-bucks”. Unlike some cars that have screens seemingly dropped here and there throughout the interior, the Mercedes uses twin 10.25-inch screens back-to-back in one rectangular display spanning much of the dashboard. The gauges and all infotainment functions are espoused in those two screens.

One way MBUX sets itself apart from others is the sheer variety of ways you can control it, with no less than four methods. With your hands at the nine-and-three positions on the steering wheel, you’ll find a mirrored set of controls at each hand made up of three buttons. The “back” and “home” buttons are pretty standard, but the centre one is interesting; it’s touch-sensitive, like the centre key of an older BlackBerry. You can scroll across the button as well as click it to make selections. The left set of buttons controls the left screen and the right set controls the right screen.

Moving down to the centre console, beneath a handy wrist pad, you’ll find a track pad. This allows you to scroll and click around the right screen; I found it touchy, so it’s best to use it in park rather than in traffic. Additionally, the main display is a touchscreen and works in a way that won’t be shocking to anyone who has used a smartphone or tablet.

DB: As opposed to the giant leap forward Mercedes wants MBUX to be, the A7’s new man-machine interface is an evolution of Audi’s traditional MMI, but what an evolution. With three screens — if you include the Virtual Cockpit that is mostly a gauge set but can double as a navigation map — Audi divvies up its screens into modules. The Virtual Cockpit, as mentioned, is your basic digitized gauge cluster, but with the ability to display a big map when the navigation system gets serious. The upper of the two touchscreens is devoted to traditional infotainment functions such as audio, Bluetooth and controlling the navigation.

Meanwhile, the lower screen is reserved for more pedestrian decisions, like the air conditioning fan speed and seat heaters. This is where the two systems start differentiating themselves — and, indeed, Audi is employing a fairly unique philosophy here by having the very same buttons that physically controlled previous generations MMIs — think the automatic start/stop switch, the button that raised and lowered the active rear spoiler, etc. — have been transposed almost identically onto a touchscreen. Think of it as an unfamiliar world (the digital interface) made familiar. That’s mighty important to some of the, shall we say, more experienced folk who can afford upscale Audis.

CS: While Audi is taking a small step for buttonry, Mercedes is making a giant leap forward in voice command technology. Simply saying “Hey Mercedes” or “Mercedes” will fire up a Siri-like assistant that can help you with everything, from turning on the seat heaters to finding nearby hotels. The system is pretty darn smart.

For example, if you want to turn up the heat, you don’t have to say “Hey Mercedes, raise cabin temperature by three degrees.” A simple “I’m cold” will suffice, and MBUX will know what you mean. Say “I’m hungry” and it will show you nearby restaurants. “I’m hungry for soup” will show you only restaurants near you that serve soup, and on and on. The system uses a cloud-based server so, if the internet holds the answer, you’ll hear it. Ask it “What is the age of the prime minister of the country of birth of Justin Bieber” and it will calmly reply that Justin Bieber was born in Canada, the Prime Minister of Canada is Justin Trudeau, and that Justin Trudeau is 47 years old.

DB: That, I must admit, is very cool. I tried the same Bieber/Trudeau trick — how do you tell them apart? — with the A7’s voice control, and as you might expect, got crickets. On the other hand, I really don’t give a tinker’s damn how old the be-socked one is. What I do care about is that Audi has finally made its handwriting recognition software totally reliable. In fact, despite the illegibility of my scrawl, it was darn near infallible. Best of all, the entire lower screen is now your pad. You can write the “365” and “Bloor” — Driving’s head office — and even the most myopic of we geriatrics can read the huge lettering. And like I said, the system — unlike that Fancy Dab voice recognition system you’re raving about, Clayton — never once failed to recognize my needs. Yes, voice commands are way nifty and they sound like they’d be more convenient, but now that Audi’s perfected the system, I think I prefer it, at least when operating the navigation system. On the other hand, that may be just cause I’m old.

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CS: Overall, the two companies have taken very different approaches to solve the same problems. Audi has focused on perfecting the touchscreen, while Mercedes has gone more radical and given users the power of choice of how they command their system. MMI is more resolved, MBUX more dazzling. One thing to note is the learning curves of both systems are very different; Audi’s MMI is easy to pick up and learn, while MBUX takes longer to grasp because the system is so vast. Ultimately, the power of the Mercedes system is broader. So, David, do you want a perfected version of the infotainment systems we already know well, or do you want the latest and greatest in technology and the learning curve that comes with it?

DB: I know it’s not the answer you’re challenging me to admit, but, in this case, I will stick with what I know. Not that the MBUX is not impressive — I learned more about Justin Bieber and Justin Trudeau than I ever wanted to, for instance. And MBUX’s steering wheel controls are among the best in the business.

But, truth be told, I’ve been dazzled enough. I know this will make me seem truly ancient, but might it be time to ask ourselves how much computing power we need in our cars? Is this finally enough? And if it’s not now, then what will be the sign that says, “OK, we’ve taken this whole ‘Car as Cray (super)Computer too far?’” In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy buttons — even if they are touchscreened — and handwriting recognition while I still can.
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