Mr Wozniak, you are an engineer, and you always intended to design things people didn’t know they were missing until they had them. Do you remember an early moment when you realized your inventions had a real impact on people? What’s the beauty of putting something new into the world?
WOZNIAK: From my childhood on, I was constantly inventing, doing things no one else was doing. One of the things was the Apple II computer because it was not just a computer. It was useful for an affordable price, but it was even more than that. It had games – in colour. That was the most attractive feature. Secondly, the Apple II’s arcade games were programmable. They were software that allowed a nine-year-old kid with a little language called BASIC to put things on the screen in different colours and move them. They could write a decent joke or a little game in one day. There are a lot of stories about the real start of Apple, but this computer was so incredibly good and advanced because I wanted it to be usable by a human.
ÖSTBERG: I remember my dad brought home the first computer I started to work with. It was a Commodore 64. Hooking it up to an old TV and getting it going, these were some of the inventions that inspired me. Also, your products were making sure that kids like me could really appreciate them. It had an enormous impact on my generation.
WOZNIAK: That was my purpose, because when I grew up, there were no books about computers in bookstores. It was my passion, and I just taught myself everything. I learned it from other people sometimes, too. And later, I wanted to inspire that in other people, people like my younger self. They would discover that building new things was a passion of theirs, something for life. They wanted to be with computers because they could understand them by themselves. Our manuals for the Apple II had every bit of design, every bit of the software. I wanted people to discover how to do it.
ÖSTBERG: As a matter of fact, the graphical interface that came in later is one of the key items I’m working on with my team. We want it to be as simple, beautiful and intuitive as possible, eliminating the need for manuals. Steve, when did you decide to use graphical interfaces?
WOZNIAK: We had it right from the start with the Apple II. In the early days, we had a mouse and menus. Many menus would drop down, or you might see a little icon that looked like a paintbrush. You’d click on it. Now, you were painting. We gave people tools so you didn’t have to be an expert but could still get things done. It was intuitive. The human was more important than the technology.
ÖSTBERG: That takes us to Mercedes-Benz being a 130-year-old company. I know you love the brand. I know you love the older models. But coming into the EV range nowadays, we are using an iterative approach to adjusting to the new electric age. Our customers have been loving the combustion engine version of the brand, and now we want to convince them of our new EV models. For example, by always improving our digital interface. We are making sure that early feedback is listened to while developing the fundamental hardware architecture as well as the software architecture. And we use the growing knowledge to iterate new innovations. You can fail fast, learn what the customers love and what they hate. It’s very educational. A lot of people don’t understand a computer-based solid fundamental operating system. That’s why we’re investing in what we call the Mercedes-Benz Operating System.
WOZNIAK: Electric vehicles aren’t necessarily all digital, like a computer.
ÖSTBERG: You are right. What I meant is the importance of having a good interface in a connected vehicle. When you had combustion engines, you didn’t have range anxiety or the need to know where your charge points were. There has been such an increase in questions or the need to have better and more up-to-date information regarding the entire journey, immediately accessible via our Mercedes-Benz Operating System.
By the way: Have you had the chance to experience the EQS on the road? Regardless of all the technology that we have on the screen, I think it is very important to use the product, to test the product and experience the feeling.
WOZNIAK: Oh, I’d love to talk about that. I take so many road trips. We’ve driven 3,000 miles to Kansas and back many times, and taken a 2,000-mile road trip to a Yellowstone National Park event. We love to drive, and we take all of our family dogs. We took our EQS to Kansas. And every inch of the way, we talked about how quiet it was compared to what we were used to. The EQS was so comfortable, so smooth. You could touch the screen and get what you wanted. And I’m used to Mercedes quality where everything fits the human being and where you would want it to easily operate the controls. It’s been the most valued car brand in my life. I’ve never been without a Mercedes. We have one Mercedes with a combustion engine as well. But the trip was really good, although we didn’t have much time. My busy life meant I didn’t read the manual. I always go through the manuals and I actually mark and underline things, but I didn’t have time to do that. We were figuring every step out on the fly.
ÖSTBERG: Wonderful. What were the things where you said that we could do a better job?
WOZNIAK: Well, we like to do a lot of things with our car, especially with the entertainment. And it took a lot of trial back and forth, much more than with my old combustion Mercedes. We’ve got one Mercedes from 2013 which has one big knob that has about six axes and things you can do pressing and turning, rotating and wobbling, and you can go through menus while you’re driving. You don’t have to turn your attention towards a screen. Also, the car sometimes had trouble finding the right chargers, even when they were nearby. I would work on that.
ÖSTBERG: Yes. And we also need to make sure there is a much better accuracy of which charger actually exists and if they are there.
WOZNIAK: One thing I liked about Mercedes from the earliest days is that the car shape was pretty much the same. The machine looked like a Mercedes and you didn’t have to say you got the one-year-later version. I like things when they stay consistent. And to this day, I can even say that about the EQS. We could’ve easily taken an S-Class with a combustion engine and had the same experience because the software is probably the same now.
ÖSTBERG: Yes, it is. The Mercedes-Benz Operating System we are building is across the line. It’s both for the electric and for the combustion engines. The only one big difference is that by having unlimited electrical power, we have better connectivity possibilities in our EVs.
Driving the EQS, did it also appeal to you because it fits your human-centred approach to engineering?
WOZNIAK: To me, originally the beauty was learning how to design things with the fewest possible pieces. But then I became very much swayed over time that everything should be beautiful to the user. What you’re seeing and how it works with your hand, your physical interaction, that’s the most important thing in any product to me. I have this philosophy of “be happy and smile a lot and don’t frown”. If there are things that make you frown, don’t do them. If your car gets dented and you take it to the body shop, get it fixed, don’t go looking for things to blame. Digital technology, you know when it doesn’t work, it does something wrong or it’s hard to figure out, that’s the one thing I get mad about. People like me should work harder and harder to get things to work and not just come up with new little gadget ideas and new features all the time. Like a Mercedes, to only improve little things inside, but not change them hugely to where I can’t remember where to put my finger.
Since September 2021, Magnus Östberg has served as Chief Software Officer at Mercedes-Benz. In this role, he is responsible for the brand’s own Mercedes-Benz Operating System, putting the car’s software at the centre of attention.
Often referred to as “Woz”, Steve Wozniak is the co-founder of Apple and a pioneering force in the personal computer revolution. Heavily involved in the development of the Apple I and II computers, Wozniak laid the groundwork for today’s digital age.
An interesting topic is autonomous driving, through which the car becomes a computer with even more potential. Now that was kind of unthinkable 10, 15 years ago. How do you feel about self-driving cars?
ÖSTBERG: That’s a great observation of what Mercedes-Benz stands for. For comfort and that feeling of being at ease. And the other aspect is that Mercedes-Benz has always stood for safety. You need to be safe, and you need to have that feeling that you know, whether someone else makes a mistake or you make the mistake, that you’re going to be safe. I think that is where we can take autonomous driving. We know that human beings are not the best when it comes to focusing over a long period of time. We get tired, we lose focus. Autonomous driving can assist us, keeping an eye on the objects around us and making sure we are actually staying in our lane. The goal is safety and using new technology for the better of the company and for the people driving Mercedes-Benz cars. Then if you extend that to being on a long road trip, as we’ve done with the California regulations authorities, you get to a point where you could actually take your hands off the wheel because the most boring thing is being on a long road where you’re stuck in traffic jams. When you press the right button, you can take your hands off the wheel for a while. Steve, I would love to hear your opinion about that. Using technology to enhance something that is in the core and the centre of it. What do you think of that philosophy?
WOZNIAK: That philosophy is excellent for road trips. When you’re driving, you’re not going to see everything. But it’s so important, especially to look to all the little things that are happening on the side. One thing is to be aware of small things, small children, small animals. I mean, if in the dark, a small animal crosses the road in front of you, the car should slow down a little and respect it. I’m very glad that’s a very important focus. Number one, it should make sense, be easy and comfortable. But number two, it should be as safe as can be. Especially when you take a long-distance trip with your whole family.
ÖSTBERG: Well, if you have new technology and computers able to give additional safety and comfort, you should do that. Our cooperation with Dolby Atmos, for instance, ensures a rich experience and elevates the music experience to the next level. We are trying to add an additional spatial audio sense. We are brainstorming with the brand. Would you rather see us keeping it simple as your principle, or do you see us using this type of idea for the entire cabin as something that would be appealing?
WOZNIAK: It has always been important to me how something sounds in a car. 50 years ago, I would get a car and I would just do one thing: I would put in a certain type of speaker that I liked. I really want sound to be in my ear, pure notes from an instrument. Music is such a big part of my life. However, the most important thing is that the fidelity is there and that it sounds good. That’s why I don’t want to have a car that’s noisy and makes me crank up the volume – that doesn’t sound right.
In the creation process, is beauty a category that you apply or do you simply know when the code is perfect?
WOZNIAK: Emotions. That’s one thing. I feel this in my car. It somehow makes me feel better. It’s just the beauty of it, it’s a part of me. It is Steve Wozniak, and this represents who I am. The quality of it just has to be that perfect. That’s the sort of attention to design and invention that I really believe in.
ÖSTBERG: The beauty of creating the product and feeling that it lives up to the standards you want but also what it’s part of. You want to give something that’s right to the world. Having a customer obsession is the ultimate proof of whether you’re doing a good job as an engineer. However, also being willing to try something new, try to be flexible to see how things are going to work out. There are lots of options, a lot of technical solutions out there and being open to also having negative feedback, to trying something but then very quickly changing and not being too proud or stubborn if something doesn’t work out. For example, now there’s a big hype around AI and ChatGPT and all these functions. We said as a team we need to find out if this could be something that could help us improve our voice interface. With the program that we just launched in the US, where we made ChatGPT available in the car, integrated in our voice interface, I was very curious whether people would actually use the voice more and what they would do with it. And it was really fascinating to find out. Some use it now twice as much as they did in the past. Technology gives you beautiful new ways of solving problems. However, it also throws you obstacles that you’ve got to learn from.
WOZNIAK: Beauty comes naturally to a human being. It is more than the shape of a car and learning a few commands by voice. Even on my phone, I want to do as much as I can with voice or on my watch and get things done. You must learn certain commands and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Especially a voice in a car, they’ll even have a voice command for increasing the volume. You might leave out a word, and AI might be an opportunity to really detect a lot of different ways that people ask for something that they want.
Harmony of software and electronics
Magnus Östberg’s first computer was a Commodore 64, and he was also creatively involved with technology at an early age. He is currently developing the new Mercedes-Benz Operating System with values similar to those of Steve Wozniak at Apple. The goal: seamless integration and harmonisation of software and electronics for the best possible driving experience – today and in the future.
Steve Wozniak during an interview with MTV in 1983. From the beginning, the engineer wanted Apple computers to be used not only in companies, but also for private individuals who enjoy creativity. That’s why he often got involved at the intersection of technology and entertainment.
Last question: Where can you think the most freely? Is driving an activity that allows you to think, a place that enables you to think because it’s a very calm space?
ÖSTBERG: Thinking whilst driving is so easy. Either it’s just relaxing or being able to think clearly. I do enjoy using lane keeping in the active cruise control a lot, because it helps me know that I’m safe. And at the same time, I have the possibility to think and relax. I very often go back and forth between Germany and the US, and it’s the same being able to travel and sit in a comfortable seat and be able to think freely. That for me is a perfect way to get new ideas because you’re exposed to new impressions.
WOZNIAK: It’s funny, with active cruise control, you can use some of that free time in your head to think about other things more. And the first time I ever had active cruise control was on a Mercedes in 2004. First time ever. Such a life-changer. It’s like some of the major changes that came with the computer world. I’m glad it was for Mercedes. I am hoping that Mercedes is always number one in the world for future cars.
ÖSTBERG: Thank you! Well, that’s exactly the spirit that drives the Mercedes team. I will definitely pass that on to them. That’s the support we want, to always be pushing ahead, be number one and bring new technology that breeds safety, not experimenting with people’s and real-world safety.
WOZNIAK: Yes, really pay attention to it and the details to make it better and better for humans.