When you compare car navigation and infotainment systems against the operating systems on our modern smartphones, there simply isn't any comparison. Our smartphones and tablets are way ahead of the car industry. Mercedes-Benz realizes this and has commissioned a team at its Palo Alto research lab to create a smartphone app called Digital DriveStyle that will work with its Drive Kit Plus option.
The Drive Kit Plus is a hardware cradle, which enables the smartphone to be connected to the vehicle that will act as the "brains" of the infotainment system. This means that it is the smartphone that will be doing all the heavy lifting with regards to media playback, navigation, and other functions. The car will only be feeding location information to the phone, as its GPS hardware is superior to the smaller hardware of the smartphone.
The Drive Kit Plus can be ordered ex factory for A-Class models, and was demonstrated on an SL at Google I/O. A retrofit solution is also available from Mercedes-Benz Accessories GmbH for virtually all current Mercedes-Benz model series.
Unfortunately, just because it's powered by a smartphone doesn't mean that it gains the fancy touch-screen and freedom of launching apps. The interface must still be navigated through using the COMAND wheel controller, which we imagine that most drivers simply tolerate. Fortunately, though, the app uses Google's Autocomplete API, which predicts the most likely destinations as you type, meaning you'll have to do less text entry than before.
The Digital DriveStyle app was on display at Google I/O because it makes use of the Places API. This can put Street View from Maps and photos from Google+ Local on the screen, which can be helpful when trying to find an address. The app also has a Radar View that will highlight popular places as you drive. Perhaps the most useful of all are live traffic conditions that will appear as an overlay over a Google Maps image.
One interesting twist is that general navigation will not be using Google Maps, but rather another solution that allows for offline operation. This makes sense given that the Mercedes-Benz wouldn't likely allow for its owners to be at the mercy of a flaky cell service for data-based mapping.
The app itself is free, as are updates and worldwide maps (which can be downloaded selectively as you need them so you don't have to devote storage to mapping places you'll never drive). What costs money is the option for it to be added to a Mercedes-Benz car, which will likely be priced higher than any off-the-shelf navigation system.
The Digital DriveStyle app is currently available for iOS users (here's a little secret: the demo at Google I/O was actually running on an iPhone 4S), but we imagine an Android version will be ready for the U.S. launch this fall.