Mobility in the 21st century: Driving safely on the data highway

If you ask people on the street what the Mercedes-Benz brand stands for, their answers are fairly unanimous. In addition to comfort, luxury, and elegance, the attribute that people ascribe most often to our vehicles from the A to the S-Class is their focus on their occupants’ safety.

That’s no surprise, because Mercedes-Benz has been setting benchmarks for active and passive vehicle safety ever since the 1950s through features such as the anti-blocking system, airbags, and the adaptive cruise control Distronic. All of these systems are now standard equipment, and new features ensure that the occupants of a Mercedes feel even more safe and protected today. As a result, our products enjoy a high level of trust. And this trust is a precious value that is worth protecting.

MBUX – Mercedes-Benz User Experience: The technology is based on artificial intelligence and an intuitive operating concept.

There’s hardly another product that has changed more radically in the course of the past decade than the automobile. Today the ongoing digitalization process and the connectivity of services are already enabling the drivers of many current model series to use the full spectrum of technical conveniences. These range from live traffic information via the MBUX voice recognition system to the use of personal smartphone apps inside the vehicle. In view of the data streams that converge in the vehicle and are processed there, a whole other question arises: Are the data inside a Mercedes just as secure and protected as the passengers?

Data protection as a mark of quality

For Renata Jungo Brüngger, the Daimler Board of Management member responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs (an area that also includes data protection), the answer is clearly yes. “Data are the future,” she says. “allowing us to offer innovative services and thus create a benefit for our customers. At the same time, at Daimler we handle data responsibly. That’s because we believe that data protection is a mark of quality. The trust that people have always placed in a Mercedes has to be carried over from the real highway to the data highway.”

In order to establish this trust, it’s important to ensure that data sovereignty remains with the customer. That’s why all of our products are based on the principle of “privacy by design.” This may sound like technical jargon, but it’s essential for data protection and it’s the top priority of our development process. Privacy by design is data protection by means of technology design.

In concrete terms, it means that even at the very start of the development process of new features and new digital business models, our engineers make sure that these innovations are user-friendly and promote data protection.  When data are collected and processed inside the vehicle, the protection of personal data as defined by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is taken into account from the very start — long before a feature reaches the series production stage and is available in vehicles.

The Mercedes me app enables a host to retrieve numerous vehicle status information, to remotely control the auxiliary heating or open and lock the doors.

“In the area of data handling, we consider three principles especially important: transparency, self-determination, and data security,” says Jungo Brüngger. “We explain to our customers why we need their data and how we process this data. Our customers have a choice: They decide which services they wish to use and which data they wish to share.” By using the Mercedes me app, customers can call up a variety of data related to their vehicles and — if they wish — they even can use the app to lock and unlock their vehicles. But as a matter of principle, Mercedes me collects only the data that is needed for the service in question. And of course Mercedes-Benz customers can withdraw permission for the transfer of their data at any time.

However, it’s also clear that the topic of data involves a lot more than operating functions and entertainment. Automakers have long been transforming themselves, going from industrial companies that process sheet metal and steel to providers of a complete range of mobility services. On DigitalLife Day in Stuttgart last July, Daimler CEO Ola Källenius put this in a nutshell: “Daimler has always been a hardware company. That’s our DNA, and that’s something we know how to do. But in recent years we’ve also developed ourselves increasingly into a software company, and here too we are the leaders in many areas. Digitalization related to the automobile is continuing to gain traction — especially when it comes to automated driving and connectivity. I anticipate that when the 5G standard is introduced, we will forge ahead into completely new dimensions.”

Modern mobility solutions are also data solutions

Present and future customers want more than just to drive a great car — they also want to get from A to B safely, comfortably and, above all, quickly, while remaining as flexible as possible. That’s because there might be a C on the way from A to B. Especially in more and more densely populated metropolitan areas, mobility requirements and the corresponding infrastructure are steadily growing. The solution may lie in a combination of various mobility offers (including other means of transportation in addition to automobiles).

Connections of this kind are impossible without a reliable flow of data, and the same is true of automated functions within the vehicle as well as the autonomously driving vehicles of the future. Sajjad Khan, Executive Vice President and Member of the Divisional Board of Mercedes-Benz Cars, CASE, has no doubt: “In order to successfully participate in shaping the mobility of the future, knowledge about data and their use is at least as important as knowledge about drivetrains.”

You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to understand that the market for software and electronics in cars will go on growing, especially due to automated driving and the future-oriented artificial intelligence (AI) sector. This development will have economic and social consequences. At the same time, it raises the question of how we can control the data from the vehicles in ways that prevent misuse. Here too, state-of-the-art technology is the key. “The provision of data gathered within the automobile is already based on the ‘extended vehicle’ concept. This means that third parties have no direct access to the vehicle. The only way they can access the vehicle is by means of an external and specially protected back-end server of the automaker,” Khan explains.

Another example: The Mercedes-Benz Vans connectivity solution Mercedes PRO enables fleet manager to control orders online and retrieve vehicle information such as location, fuel level or maintenance intervals – practically in real-time.

The handling of data must be sustainable

Even though the Internet itself has developed far beyond its early stages, the opportunities that digital technologies will offer us in the years ahead — in the era of 5G technology — are only at the beginning of their development. That makes it all the more important to keep in mind not only the undoubtedly important aspect of CO2 neutrality – but also the questions regarding digitalization against the background of sustainability. Only recently, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) emphasized the urgency of also making digitalization more sustainable. “The global digital transformation should be structured in such a way that it supports the implementation of Agenda 2030 and its global sustainability goals,” wrote the experts.

Agenda 2030 was agreed on by all the member states of the United Nations at a summit meeting held in September 2015. It is meant to lay the groundwork for efforts to shape worldwide economic progress in harmony with social justice within the framework of the Earth’s ecological limits. In its Charter for a Sustainable Digital Age, the WBGU follows up on the Agenda 2030 and even goes one step further by insisting that the use of digital technology also involves obligations.

Its use should also serve the general good. Digital solutions must not be used to oppress people, conduct unjustified surveillance or exert social control. “All human beings have the right to a digital identity, sovereignty, data protection, and privacy.” All states and companies shall “actively work to minimize risks to critical infrastructures.”

In the “Ambition 2039” program it formulated this year, Daimler does not outline any new sustainability strategy. Instead, we elaborate on the basic concept that companies will have a future only if they implement a sustainable corporate strategy. One aspect of this strategy is that Mercedes-Benz’ fleet of new vehicles will become CO2 neutral within the next 20 years. But a sustainable corporate strategy goes beyond that. It will include not only climate protection but also elements such as resource conservation, traffic safety, human rights, and the responsible handling of data.

That’s because one thing is clear: In the mobility of the future, connectivity and digitalization will play a decisive role in areas such as automated and autonomous driving and new services. At Daimler we are supporting these developments with a holistic data governance approach to the responsible handling of data. In the process we want to offer our customers not only new services but also comfortable and secure data handling, so that they can continue to drive their Mercedes vehicles with the greatest possible safety and security.

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This article was written by Christian Scholz. As a child, he once made it into the Mercedes-Benz magazine with a car drawing in the 1980s. Back then he crossed SUVs and coupés. Completely crazy! That’s why he preferred to use the pencil for writing rather than drawing in the following years. Today, he writes in various Daimler media about cars and car-related topics.