It all started with a young man standing helplessly by his car in the middle of the car park of a Swedish furniture store. While doing his shopping he had overestimated how much space there was in his boot. The inevitable consequence was that his car was hopelessly overfilled. He almost had to take a box back to the checkout. This experience left a lasting impression – and gave the young man, Gabriel Selbach, an idea: would it be possible for a smartphone to work out how many of the items that you were buying would fit in your car?
Together with Sebastian Thiemt and Toni Hoang, Gabriel Selbach set about putting flesh on the bones of his brainwave. The three young entrepreneurs then presented their idea at the inaugural DigitalLife Day in 2015 – and promptly won the competition for internal Daimler start-ups. They walked away with a development budget of €25,000, which they used to programme an initial prototype of the app. The trio were then given the opportunity to present this in various areas of the Group. “The candidate that first came to mind was Mercedes-Benz Vans,” explains Sebastian Thiemt. “But smart were even quicker in getting back to us with a really positive response.”
App available since early September 2016
When smart came on board, the three creators of the app were given an additional development budget. The app was quickly reprogrammed to cater to the current smart model range – and the customers of the practical sub-compact family car are already feeling the benefit. The finished app has officially been available since 2 September 2016 in the Apple App Store. Its Android equivalent was released in the Play Store just a few weeks ago.
“Right from the beginning we wanted the app to be a reliable everyday companion that people would actually use,” says Gabriel Selbach, outlining the team’s aspiration. The “pactris” process can be broken down into several steps. You first need to tell the app what items you want to pack into your car by using the smartphone camera. To do this, you scan the barcodes, which of course are found on almost every product in flat-pack furniture stores and DIY shops. The app then uses the unique product number to search for the dimensions of the box which you wish to load.
A database containing all the thousands of products that are available today would be too big to be stored on the app itself. So instead, a web crawler trawls the internet for the data that is hidden behind the scanned barcode. It almost always returns a hit. The app can work out from the dimensions of the box in which the item is packed whether it will fit into the car or not.
Providing real-time support for the post-shop packing of the car is by far the app’s most difficult job. “We spent most of our time developing the algorithm for the optimum packing sequence,” reports Sebastian Thiemt, who is currently the main person in charge of the pactris project.
Sebastian Thiemt, Developer of the pactris app
So no one gets left behind in the car park
Although there are some existing programmes that show you how to pack objects to save as much space as possible, they often fail to meet the requirements of everyday use. And, of course, the box containing your furniture doesn’t just have to fit inside the car, it also has to get through the tailgate. In the case of the smart forfour model, the app also takes into account the individually folding rear bench seat backrests and cushions. The app also asks how many passengers are travelling to make sure that no one has to stay behind in the car park.
The three young developers also thought about products whose dimensions have not yet found their way onto the internet: crates of beer or drinks are also stored in the app, as are removal boxes and the shopping crates used by the larger supermarket chains. The dimensions of other objects can simply be entered manually.
The optimum loading sequence is shown in a 3D view that displays the selected smart model and the items that need to be packed. “To make it look as aesthetically pleasing as possible, we got help from the smart design department,” explains Sebastian Thiemt. “It was interesting trying to find a good compromise between the most realistic depiction and the available computing power on the smartphone.”
Other possible uses
Taking a longer-term view, it’s not just smart customers who will benefit from the app. Customers of Mercedes-Benz will also one day discover pactris – potentially even via an interface with the Mercedes me app.
Until that day arrives, the pactris developers are working on new fields of application for their load compartment Tetris app. And in Daimler’s plant logistics, the team have found a suitable candidate: “Every day, huge numbers of goods are packed and unpacked here in a precisely coordinated process,” says Sebastian Thiemt. “A pro-version of our app could help, for example, to optimise the loading and unloading sequence.”
For more efficient logistics
The major benefit of using the app in plant logistics would be that all the specifications of all loading containers, including their dimensions, are already recorded in the IT system. Cages have standardised dimensions, and the loading spaces of trucks and vans generally have a practical rectangular footprint. This is where pactris would come in: the app could track and optimise the route taken by an individual part from the moment it arrives at the works gate to its delivery to the assembly line. Time wasted switching from one container to another would be almost completely eliminated thanks to the digital loading assistant.
Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler’s Group Research unit
“The pactris app could play a key role in future transport and logistics concepts,” predicts Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler’s Group Research unit. “One of the bigger trends in the transportation of goods will be the breakdown of goods into smaller units. These can then navigate an existing traffic network using different transport modes, which is also known as synchromodal transport. The pactris app may prove itself to be a useful component for the overall concept for this type of transport.” For such a system to work, it is vital to not only efficiently access the loading spaces of the various modes of transport, but to have information on how much space all of the items to be loaded take up.
Steffen Kaup sees the ever-increasing demands on e-commerce as one of the greater trends. Households are having more goods delivered home and requirements with regard to speed of delivery and reduction of waiting times are on the increase. Crowd-delivery services are designed to combat these trends, i. e. a lot of smaller delivery services or even private persons who support goods transportation in city centres. These could also be seen as a future area of application for pactris as these services don’t just deliver goods on their route through inner-city areas, but they also take other packages on board.
It’s clear that the growing connectedness of our world is creating whole new possibilities in the field of logistics. The three pactris pioneers weren’t even thinking of that when they first came up with their idea – but in the end the new app is not just helping owners of smart vehicles on their shopping trips, it will potentially also make logistics more efficient both in and outside the factory gates.
Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler’s Group Research unit
MR LESNIK, IT’S NOT JUST TECHNICIANS WHO ARE FINDING THAT ELECTROMOBILITY POSES NEW PROBLEMS. DESIGNERS ARE ALSO BEING FORCED TO ADAPT. WHAT ARE THE SPECIFIC CHALLENGES VEHICLE DESIGNERS ARE FACING?
Robert Lesnik: I prefer to see them less as challenges and more as new opportunities. For those models that come in a combustion and an electric version, there were no great visible changes. They just lost their drive train, up to and including the exhaust. But if we don’t even have a combustion model in the first place, all sorts of entirely new possibilities open up, and we are able to work with entirely new proportions. Of course those still need to be well balanced and attractive, so that our cars continue to evoke desire. We call that “purpose design” which means design based on the intended use.
AND A DISTINCT “ELECTRO LOOK” WILL HELP WITH THAT?
It’s our opinion that the time is ripe for electronic vehicles to have their own design characteristics, and that it’s ok for a new electro look that differentiates itself formally from a combustion vehicle. With our Concept EQ we deliberately chose a different design for the front, the rear and the window layouts, creating a new formal unit. We call this “signature graphics”, and our aim is to create an entirely new impression. On top of that, all elements should appear flush and aerodynamic. That means smaller recesses and reduced stepping. Everything blends seamlessly together, like in aircraft design.
Robert Lesnik, Director Exterior Design at Mercedes-Benz
WILL CAR BUYERS HAVE TO GET USED TO A NEW DESIGN IDIOM?
If you deliberately choose to design differently, you can opt for purpose design, as we have done with the EQ architecture. But one thing is clear, in the end the vehicle still has to be recognisable as a Mercedes-Benz. The new models of the EQ product brand must remain emotional and intelligent. That is the contrast at the heart of our design. It’s ok if unexpected and surprising things happen along the way, but they must always fit into our design philosophy.
HOW WILL THE ELECTRO-DESIGN DIFFER FROM THE DESIGN IDIOM OF THE CONVENTIONALLY POWERED MODELS? AFTER ALL, COMBUSTION VEHICLES ARE GOING TO BE ON OUR ROADS FOR QUITE SOME TIME YET.
For combustion vehicles, a lot depends on the engine position, with an correspondingly long bonnet. If you can do away with the engine, then you can say goodbye to the old familiar look in this respect. And that’s what we are going to do. The new EQ variants will be designed in collaboration with the various design departments.
WHAT CREATIVE FREEDOMS DOES THE NEW TECHNOLOGY BRING?
By getting rid of the combustion engine and other components, such as transmission, exhaust and radiator, we are gaining additional space that will benefit the passengers. As designers we are very happy to take advantage of this opportunity.
HOW DO YOU BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN TRADITIONAL DESIGN AND THE NEW FORMS OF ELECTROMOBILITY?
The two types of design are going to coexist for quite a while. The first vehicle from the EQ family will arrive in 2019, and by 2025 we will have at least ten completely electronic models on the market. Both body shapes will follow the principles of the Mercedes-Benz design philosophy, with the EQ models distinguished by some unique design elements. This includes the design of the front, which will create a unique, individual character. We have already presented some of the elements in Paris, such as the slot in the cowl for the windscreen wipers that only opens when the wipers are needed. This allows us to make significant improvements, both to the aerodynamics and above all to the aeroacoustics. Because without the traditional engine noise other sources of noise suddenly become a lot more noticeable.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO TRANSFER THE FACE OF THE BRAND TO THE NEW DRIVE TECHNOLOGY SO THAT AN E-MERCEDES IS IMMEDIATELY RECOGNISABLE AS A MERCEDES-BENZ?
With all of our vehicles we will be concentrating on the proportions – the lines will be smoother. The face of the brand remains the same for both types of drive technology, but that does not rule out variations. Even today, we are already the only brand with different front sections. We’ve got the traditional three-pointed star on the bonnet, the star in the centre of the radiator grille, and the sporty face of the AMG. And now we’re adding another variation, the face of the EQ, where the technology allows us a wide range of design options. But it must always remain possible to recognise a Mercedes-Benz as such from a distance.
ARE THESE NEW PROPORTIONS BEING DISCUSSED WITH THE DESIGNERS OF THE CONVENTIONAL MODELS?
Our design teams are already working on different model series across the board. And of course there is some discussion, and everyone knows all the model series. There needs to be a strategic plan to ensure that everything fits together at the end, when the cars are on display at the dealership. It has to be completely obvious that they all belong to the same family and brand, and this applies just as much to the new EQ models.
THE SHAPE OF THE CURRENT CONCEPT EQ IS THAT OF AN SUV. WILL THIS BE FOLLOWED BY MODELS IN OTHER FORMATS?
The term SUV is generally associated with large, heavy vehicles with a relatively upright greenhouse. I prefer to speak of a crossover, i. e. a model which is positioned in between the familiar segments and proportions. The appearance of our Concept EQ is less bulky, but it has the advantage of the higher seat position of an SUV. The roof is flatter, but it still provides a lot of headroom. At the rear we don’t have the typical SUV look, but rather a touch of shooting brake, to improve the aerodynamics. We have chosen this shape deliberately, because it is contemporary.
FINALLY A GLIMPSE AHEAD: WHERE IS EV DESIGN GOING IN THE FUTURE?
For the moment we are working on this first generation, and that will turn a few heads, as people may not have been expecting that from us. We have lots of ideas. For example, when we’re talking about autonomous driving, it raises the question of whether we want to carry that through to the outside. We are certainly looking forward to the new possibilities.