Spoiler alert: Yeah, sure!
For more than a decade, we’ve become accustomed to having screens in our cars. Like the keening heard over the loss of the manual transmission, some of the loudest voices echoing from the chantry of vehicular enthusiasm have added a verse about big-screen automotive interfaces to their Luddite lament.
Well not me, baby! I love all the screens and buttons and voice controls and head-up displays. Give me driving assistance. Give me lane-keeping aids and automatic braking. Give me heated, massaging seats. Give me things that are called self-driving but really aren’t. Give me LCD panels as wide and colorful as the sprawling horizon towards which I point my three-ton personal luxury conveyance and try not to fall asleep.
I suspect I am not alone. While the saw about “manufacturers are only including features customers want” can sometimes be correct, there are plenty of examples in automotive history—late model cars with no physical volume knobs come to mind—where many new car buyers find all the whiz-bang features to be pretty compelling. And since almost every modern car is pretty great at being a car, getting you where you want to go in comfort and relative safety, the user experience and even entertainment options are increasingly important for normal buyers.
You may be a car nut like me, but my experience from both working in the automotive industry (for GM, Ford, and Audi, at different times in different capacities, none of which was actually making or designing cars, to be fair) and also simply knowing people who aren’t car nuts has led me to believe that most people are perfectly happy with the fact that most cars are normalizing into some variant of a 250-horsepower crossover powered by an inline-4 that seats 5. So the interior—the interface and the experience—are more important than ever.
But enough preamble! Let’s take a look at Mercedes-Benz’ latest iteration of “MBUX,” their in-car computer system, first available in the United States in the small, affordable (for Mercedes) A Class, but sampled by me in the GLS 63 AMG, a $150,000 luxury SUV with a 600-horsepower engine and enough wood and leather inside to build a sweat lodge. It was painted a deep green called “Emerald” and the whole thing was very beautiful, which surely influenced my impressions of the MBUX system as a whole because I am not a soullessrobot.
The first thing one notices inside an MBUX vehicle is that there are two very large screens: one behind the steering wheel serving as a gauge cluster and driver display; another directly to the right over the center stack. These are housed inside a single slab of metal and plastic that appeared to my eye to be almost too spare at first.
The second thing one notices is that the screens don’t stand out. It’s wild how quickly you become used to having that much screen in front of you at all times; how simple the tastefully bowed screen looks with no overhanging lip above it at all to protect from glare.
Modern cars (the Porsche Taycan is another that comes to mind) no longer need to stuff their LCD panels into a recess in the dash to keep them visible during the middle of the day, thanks to both brighter screens and improvements in glare-reducing coatings. Not every MBUX-equipped Merc has the all-in-one screen—some have more separation between the two—but most do.)
While there is some duplication in functionality (you can get GPS maps on either screen, albeit in different looks, for example), for the most part, the right-most screen shows mapping, entertainment, and comfort controls, while the left-most screen is more driving-specific information: speed, heading, vehicle performance and safety information—you know, things that used to be on analog gauges.
Mercedes took a risk with MBUX’s user interface by taking a maximalist approach and including three separate methods to operate the system: a touchpad in the center console (the space between the driver and front passenger seats); touch, for the center-right screen; and steering wheel controls with two little touch-sensitive swipe buttons for each thumb, not totally unlike a video game controller. Oh, and voice control, which…we will talk about later.
It works. It works really well, in fact. For first-time users, the ability to default to touch for the middle screen makes getting started simple enough. You can poke in letters and numbers on the screen to enter a navigation address no problem. You can swipe around to select different modes and functions and apps. It makes instant sense to anyone who has used a touchscreen interface over the last decade, which is just about everyone. Like most auto interfaces, the touch is effectively limited to an X and Y axis scrolling, but that’s fine. That’s all it needs.
Once you get a little more familiar with the system, keeping your right hand resting on the touchpad in the center console starts to feel even better than using the touchscreen. I’m becoming a huge fan of these sorts of control pods in modern cars. They aren’t new innovations, per se. Cars have had knobs and touchpads and controls in the center console for decades. But in general, they’re starting to become really powerful.
In the case of MBUX in the GLS, you can control almost every function of the car from the little modules under your right hand. The touchpad, despite looking like a laptop touchpad, still really just registers X and Y-axis swipes to control the touchscreen (except when using the “draw the letter on the touchpad to input text” mode that is really cool but I have never, ever regularly used in any interface ever).
It’s surrounded by switchgear—rockers, buttons, etc.—that feels great, solid (usually metal) materials with satisfying tactility. And smack-dab in the middle is a hunk of metal and leather which serves no purpose except to be a place to rest your hand and let your fingers languorously glide over the touchscreen as if you were lounging next to a cool river on a hot day.
Then there are the steering wheel controls. While there are a few different finishes available, GLS I spent a few days in had metal buttons on a metal backplate. Extremely nice. Very busy! Honestly, for the average user probably a bit too busy. But for me, a nerd? Two thumb pads and multiple levers and rollers and buttons? Love it.
If anything encapsulates Mercedes’ kitchen-sink approach to MBUX, it’s the combination of the steering wheel controls and the driver’s gauge screen. Multiple gauge cluster modes can be selected with the left thumb controls (again, X and Y axis and click-to-select), in a sort of echo but not a complete duplication of the modes from the right screen. It sounds more confusing than it is. For example, there’s a navigation screen mode on the right screen that’s a normal GPS map mode. There’s also a navigation screen for the left gauge screen that puts a navigation map behind the two virtual gauges, should you choose. Or can make it take over one of the gauges, should you choose. Or can take over most of the whole gauge cluster, shoving the speedometer off to one side, should you choose.
Really, that’s one of the main design axioms of MBUX: should you choose. There are three touch-based interfaces. There are multiple “themes” that are just a couple of swipes away at any point that don’t just change the look and informatics displays of the screens but can affect physical properties of the vehicle as well: engine and transmission performance, steering, the height of the vehicle itself. And this is beyond the normal performance selector modes available, like “Sand” or “Sport+.” I put a few hundred miles on this GLS and just barely felt like I was starting to understand all the ways MBUX could be configured. And to be clear, that’s not a ding against MBUX. It’s a design choice. And I think a successful one, both at a pure UX level and also at a brand level.
To zoom out a bit, one of the reasons I wanted to take a look at some of these car interfaces from a more ‘gadget-y’ lens is that I think many car reviewers are too focused on first impressions. That certainly matters for approachability. (And unlike, say, a video game with a good tutorial versus one without, has real safety implications in a 3-ton moving object.) But it’s not really reflective of the experience a car owner would have over the several years most people typically own something. Some user experience choices that seem annoying or confusing at first might later make more sense. My car (a late-model Volvo) was dinged by many reviewers for having a slow CPU that sometimes takes too long to boot up when you turn on the car. That is true! Yet only occasionally annoying, like when the backup camera takes a few seconds to load. In practice, it’s infrequent and does little to affect the whole user experience of the car.
Oh, oh, oh! I was pontificating and almost forgot to mention the coolest part of the GLS steering wheel in the AMG (hot rod) versions: a little circular knob in the lower-right corner that is a mode selector with a tiny LCD screen inside, and an accompanying set of two buttons on the lower-left that can be configured for other one-touch functions that also have a little LCD screen inside. Little LCD screens! In the steering wheel! Very good. More tiny LCD screens in cars, please.
What else have I ignored? So much. A new “ENERGIZING” feature is sort of like a cheesy Euro airport lounge aesthetic that plays some lively music—including some really embarrassing German post-polka—and turns on the massagers and shows a big animated anus-looking thing on the screen so you don’t get sleepy on long trips. There is a mode that slightly moves your seat around while you’re driving so you don’t get any hot spots or get too sore, which. is a great idea except it moves quickly enough that you can feel it moving, which is distracting. The GPS is still not as good as Google or Apple’s mapping, which means I often still ended up using the system-within-a-system of CarPlay to get around instead of the built-in system. There’s an “Augmented Reality” overlay mode in the built-in GPS that is clearly a preamble for a future head-up version that would display through the windshield.
Oh, and voice control. There has been some chatter in car-land that the MBUX voice control system is “finally good enough.” It’s not. It has a modicum of intelligence, able to parse “I am cold” to “understand” that the car should turn up the heat. But it is still on the slow side to respond, it still takes a fair amount of time to understand what keywords it is trained to understand, and it sometimes does the opposite of what I had expected. (I kept asking it to “Turn up navigation voice” and it would just turn off the GPS.) It’s certainly the best in-car voice control that I’ve used, but it’s still not very good. To be fair, I don’t think any voice control systems are very good, even Google or Alexa. And there are clear safety benefits to being able to talk to your car instead of looking at one of those giant screens. And it did serve as a good sort of catch-all when trying to figure out if MBUX could do something in the first place. It’s fine. But we’re a long way from being able to remove touch-based controls from our cars.
That aside, though, I am comfortable saying MBUX is among the top car interfaces I’ve experienced. It’s powerful, it’s customizable, and it’s not ghastly to look at. (Although it is all a bit more colorful and busy than you’d expect for a Mercedes-Benz if you hadn’t realized the brand has been showing off its “fun side” more and more over the years.) The animations are quick, the resolution is crisp and visible in every condition. It’s easy to get the basics figured out in just a few minutes, while deep enough to have some surprises and capabilities hidden away for later discovery. Is it better than a steering wheel, a couple of gauge pods, and three pedals as a “driver’s experience?” Of course not. But “drivers” aren’t who drive the most these days. People do. And MBUX is a very good computer for people who find themselves inside a Mercedes.
Disclaimer: Joel Johnson used to work at Gizmodo. He’s subsequently worked with several car companies, including GM, Ford, Audi, and Airstream. He now works in PR and should not be trusted.