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The Benz that finds your friends

Posted by Keith Griffin  March 11, 2011 04:34 PM

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The Mercedes mbrace app, shown above in various screens on the iPhone, can track the location of another cell phone.

The Mercedes E350 station wagon is a compelling vehicle on its own. Add the new mbrace service developed by Hughes Telematics, Inc., that Mercedes-Benz offers as an option and you have a vehicle that stays connected to you no matter where you are.

Fire up the app on your smartphone and a simulated key fob appears after logging in via an account number and personal identification number. It operates just like the standard key fob and can unlock your doors, help you locate the car, and connect you with a telephone operator.

The service replaces TeleAid, a phone-based personal concierge and vehicle locating service accessed by a console button, and recently, with a smartphone app. The new mbrace system — which features a more robust app and integration into the vehicle's voice-activated infotainment display — offers a total of 33 services.

Among them is a new feature called Drive2Friend, which can send a cell phone's location to the car's navigation system. Its beauty comes from its simplicity. The system sends a text asking for permission to track the phone, and if accepted, the GPS coordinates become the car's destination. No more going to the PF Chang's on Boylston instead of Lane Park because you misunderstood your friend's directions. It could also prove invaluable for parents trying to locate teenagers who might need a ride home from a party (call it FindUrKid) or taxis trying to locate a customer in a strange location.

"I think this is the coolest feature we have," said Christina Yarnold, Hughes product manager. "It's a social networking way to reach out."

Mercedes-Benz is the first manufacturer to offer the Hughes system since it was launched in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Another new intriguing feature is Send2Benz. It allows you to search for a destination and then send it directly to your Mercedes-Benz for navigation when you return to the car. You no longer have to search for a destination on your smartphone and then rekey it when you get to your vehicle.

Kevin W. Link, vice president of marketing at Hughes, said a customer just needs to hit a "download now" button after starting their car. The information does not download automatically because that would require the receiver to be turned on constantly, which could potentially drain the vehicle's battery. The system also allows you to install an mbrace widget on your computer's web browser toolbar. Owners can find a location on a laptop or home computer and then fire off the destination to the mbrace unit.

Link said security is enhanced on the mbrace system. Each new customer receives an account number and PIN that is then paired with the vehicle identification number and the mobile phone number. Each vehicle has to be registered to a specific vehicle. It's not possible to use mbrace from just any cell phone. However, he added, customers can still speak with a live agent, for example, if their cell phones lose charge and they need to access their vehicle or get other assistance.

One element of the mbrace system that may get lost in all of its "gee whiz" technology is its precise GPS capabilities. During the demonstration at the Chicago Auto Show last month, the unit pinpointed exactly where the vehicle was located inside the cavernous McCormick Place exhibition space. "That's critical when you're doing emergency services," Link said.

It further enhances the experience when dealing with the live agents on call. Whenever a customer reaches out to the agents, the mbrace unit's latitude and longitude pops up on the screen along with a satellite photo (similar to a Google Earth image) of the location. Link said that can help direct emergency personnel to a vehicle that may have gone off the road.

All new 2011 Mercedes-Benz vehicles include a six-month trial of the standard mbrace system. After that, it's $280 per year (and if you want real-time traffic alerts and other options, it's $520). Older vehicles from 2005 onward are also compatible.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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