The Mercedes-Benz F 015 autonomous car of the future has its branding set somewhere last century and fails to recognise that innovation involves more than sleek lines and LED trimmings.
Crimes committed in this analysis: gender bias, racial bias, lack of originality, failure to utilise multimedia advancements, and overall poor execution.
Ars Electronica takes place every year in Linz, Austria. Since 1979, the five day event has invited
international artists, scientists and researchers to confront a specific, interdisciplinary theme in the context of speeches, workshops, exhibitions, and symposia.
The Mercedes-Benz Cooperation
Futurelab is the Ars Electronica in-house R&D facility spanning science, research, art, and technology. The Futurelab staff includes experts in media art, architecture, design, interactive exhibitions, virtual reality, and real-time graphics.
Ars Electronica states that Futurelab and Mercedes-Benz collaborated on the Future of Mobility exhibition for over two years, and that “the focus has constantly been on human-machine interaction in humankind’s future urban habitats.”
While this video is poor, it’s not half as bad as the video embedded in the mood board.
F 015’s European Premiere
The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion had its European premiere at Ars Electronica and had already been shown in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Shanghai. While the aesthetic of the car itself was impressively space aged, the presentation of the car was dated.
In the press text, Ars Electronic state that the vehicle “shows how self-driving cars are going to change our society”– except that none of the people responsible for the showcase identified that only a fraction of highly privileged society was represented.
Despite being billed as a collaboration, the Futurelab’s involvement was not explained, with unilateral focus instead on the designers at Mercedes-Benz.
The car was artfully positioned with an assortment of pot plants.
The neon detailing on the chairs distracted from the lack of technology inside.
The F 015 Luxury in Motion was located in the Ars Electronica Future Mobility District and touted as the highlight of the Future Mobility exhibition.
While the F 015 may be billed as ‘forward thinking’, placing it soon after the Habitat 21 District, which included new designs for refugee camps, was a poor curation decision. The stark positioning of luxury against concepts for the betterment of humanity was, to put it charitably, somewhat bewildering.
Luxury was not visible anywhere else at the festival. Luxury is not per se distasteful, and art and media festivals constantly walk the line between showcasing artists, the art market, and the corporate world that powers it. However, the Ars Electronica Post City is a massive building with room to display corporate sponsors as stand-alone presentations, so the attempt to blend obvious product placement with festival submissions – especially since the latter had such fundamentally different sociopolitical undercurrents – seemed flawed.
Brand Identity Crisis
We can only assume that Mercedes-Benz aimed to present a space that would encourage consumers to foster a relationship to the brand. The accompanying videos, mood board, and interactive display failed to convey a futuristic vision or inspiration, and therefore failed at tying the concept of innovation to the existing Mercedes-Benz brand.
The mood board contained so many pictorial faux pas it was comical. It may well be that complete
wall displays for automotive manufacturers are available for download (as a Word file) and that is
why it looked like stock photography confetti.
The mood board had it all: a Charles and Ray Eames La Chaise chair, a cup of coffee, an hourglass, and a sea shell. The only objects missing from this emblematically insulting montage was a fern leaf, a feather, and a lightbulb.
Looked more like a high school science project than a luxury display.
While ‘simplicity and lightness’ and ‘pleasure and gaining time’ are understandable design drivers, ‘materials and structures’ is so obtuse as to be either insulting or embarrassing. Stating words for the audience to self-interpret highlighted that there were no real messages to take away.
On the adjacent wall the following images attempted to portray (we can only assume) a history of
innovation and awareness of the human form – because when we think ballet, we think seating?
If a Leonardo Da Vinci-style sketch was an attempt to make the presentation feel artisanal, they missed the mark. Considering the real car was positioned two meters away, the need for artist’s impressions was redundant.
It’s a safe bet that these concept sketches were completed after the car was finished.
The centrepiece of the information display was a 1-2 minute promotional video that ostensibly
attempted to capture the mood of the rest of the display: luxury design and technological
advancement combining to evoke some sort of awe. The only way this mood was conveyed was as
a sort of paint-by-numbers of buzzwords and visual cues, a beginner’s how-to guide, perhaps for a
first year uni advertising course, cobbling together as many cliches for the two key concepts (luxury
design and technological advancement) as possible. In this way the video perfectly complemented
the ludicrous mood board at least.
A perfect symbiosis? Buzzword Bingo anyone?
What took the video from simply poor and unimaginative to actually insulting, was the oblivious
sexism it championed and the absolute lack of multiculturalism. Literally every single person who
appeared in the piece was white. Surely a company of the international reach of Mercedes-Benz
should be beyond such old-fashioned provincialism.
Designing a car is clearly a solemn business.
Going from bad to worse, the video, which featured a series of soundbites from upper level
management and mini-clips of designers at work, included only one woman among a flood of laughable earnest-looking, white, male faces attached to preposterously overblown quotes. Rubbing salt in the old casual-sexism wound, the single female employee included in the video – according to the subtitle herself a designer – is silenced in the video, she is given no soundbite like her male colleagues, and instead is shown handling fabrics (another cliche about the acceptable roles of women in the automotive industry). To be more specific, she is shown presenting her fabric choices to two male colleagues who are discussing her choice: in contrast, all the male designers are shown individually, in close up. The juxtaposition almost requires no analysis; on the other hand, the fact that a major brand like Mercedes-Benz could make such obvious blunders as this, with presumably an almost unlimited budget on their hands, indicates that perhaps there are still those out there who need some tips.
The only woman in the video, selecting fabric.
Here we have the serious, thoughtful expressions of men in close up who are discussing their work
in the highest of praising terms – the individual geniuses contributing to the achievement of this
wondrous product, is the message we are presumably supposed to absorb here. The single woman
who graces the screen is not given a voice or opinion of her own, instead she is fulfilling an
insultingly limiting trope – she is providing a ‘feminine touch’ to the design of the interior – all the while, of course, under the careful observation (and guidance?) of her male colleagues. People of colour simply do not exist at all in the development of this future Mercedes-Benz world, or so the video would seem to suggest.
On the back of those very depressing observations, it was almost a welcome comic relief when the
video suddenly switched tack. Inexplicably the viewer is now confronted with a vaguely 90s looking mock-up of a computer interface.
Why so many crosshairs? What would happen if there was more than one car in view? Bedlam is our guess!
Minimal colour, indecipherable lines of code, some poor gradient colour, and neon pink crosshairs (harking back to the video designer’s teenage gamer years perhaps?). Then all stops are cancelled and it’s an express ride to hilarity-ville when the screen is suddenly filled with scrolling zeroes and ones. Because: the future.
‘Stereo Correspondence Check’ – the future is here!
The F 015 Luxury in Motion boasts that passengers can interact with it via “intelligent technology” such as “gestures, eye-tracking, or high-definition touch screens”. The interface for the F 015 was a blast from 1990. Lacking a much needed back button, visitors struggled with a poorly responsive display when attempting to navigate through the different screens. In the vehicle on display there were no screens, rather projected images of what the screens might look like.
The LED trim was absent from these seats (probably to ensure visitors were not easily distracted).
Using the vehicles’ form as a slider, the proportions were laughable. The negative messages that the display communicated where endless. Here you can see the car in relation to older vehicles and the older vehicles look more desirable than the F 015.
You noticed the red stain to the right of the car too? No idea what that is…
Is this miniature vehicle on the ‘Beamcam’ screen indicative of how the F 015 will be positioned in “humankind’s future urban habitats”?
The small text on the right reads Alameda Airfield but it’s not explained to the viewer what this means.
If you were travelling in an autonomous car and saw the following screen, would you panic? Unless the car can fly, the ‘Places’ screen provides more questions than answers.
The text lower right reads: “Golden Gate Bridge – The color of the bridge is an orange vermillion called international orange”. How is that fun fact going to help you while driving?
When selecting the ‘Social’ category from the dropdown menu, Mercedes-Benz have attempted to
show a range of ethnicities, a la Microsoft, demonstrating again their love of stock photography. Sadly, however (if the promotional video is to be believed), none of them work at Mercedes-Benz. What message does this send about how – and by whom – ‘the future’ is being created for a multicultural, multiracial population?
Who are these people? Other drivers on the road? Facebook friends? Mercedes-Benz owners?
When you click on a person to view their profile, all that can be seen are their contact details. This
is the connectivity that is bragged about? An address book?
Looks similar to Microsoft products, right?
It is also important to note that while this review concentrates on the poor promotion of the vehicle, it could not discuss the technical aspects of the vehicle because they simply were not on show. There were no explanations of how the car would be powered or engine specifications. The car was purely a canvas to showcase interactivity.
The display did not appear to take art direction from experts in media art, architecture, design, interactive exhibitions, virtual reality or real-time graphics, failing to convince that this was a collaboration and not blatant product placement. Events like Ars Electronica need corporate sponsors, but they must be held to the same critical standards as the participating artists. The presentation should have been isolated from other displays instead of trying to pass for an innovative investigation.
How could this be done differently? How about international, intercultural collaboration (how would the car or software perhaps be used differently in various cultural settings?) – we are, after all, moving into an ever more networked and interconnected future. At an open arts and technology festival like Ars Electronica, there was so much potential to pursue deeper threads pertaining to self-driven vehicles: how will the systems be protected against hackers? What are the issues around open source versus proprietary software? Even just basic background info for an informed audience like what software is currently being used or what the main challenges are with this? If we are going to be working more in our vehicles, what is this going to mean for city architecture? Or for our physical health?
If Mercedes-Benz want to be taken seriously about future design, they need to present themselves as more than utterly conservative car designers and take on real issues – even just the practical considerations of how self-driven vehicles will be integrated into the existing infrastructure, what specific conditions they may require etc. By so completely relying on these utterly ridiculous, stock photo tropes of ‘quality’, ‘design’, and ‘innovation’, however, the company not only missed an opportunity to present its own unique vision of the future, it also presented itself as unoriginal, disingenuous, and, frankly, archaic.
And remember (this really shouldn’t have to be said in this day and age) it might be worth considering that your market for luxury vehicles in the future is unlikely to be made up of solely rich, white guys.
This analysis was a collaboration between Natalie Kane and Gretta Louw.
An academic version of this article can be found on Furtherfield,
How representations of the future are mired in the past: a case study