FRANKFURT, Germany — It was a tale of two Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans — one, a bare-bones commuter I drove in the Northern Virginia suburbs of the District of Columbia.
The other was simply stupendous — no other way to put it. It was outfitted with rich, two-toned leather and pretty wood veneers; fixed with soft ambient lighting that eased my mood; equipped with reliable wireless WiFi service, far more reliable and accessible than the service offered by my hotel here; and bestowed with the ability to “read” local traffic conditions, which, despite its considerable girth, made it remarkably maneuverable in a seemingly endless Frankfurt rush hour.
The Frankfurt Luxury Sprinter — my name for it — mirrored the diesel Sprinter 2500 I drove stateside in that both could carry up to 12 passengers, albeit in the lap of luxury and convenience in the Frankfurt van that carried me to and from the 2015 International Motor Show here.
The two vans also told a tale of two automobile cultures and industries, both on display here at the 2015 show. One is rooted in the glitz and gleam of the zoom-zoom automotive tradition with all its talk about horsepower and torque. The other looks to a future when access to transportation possibly becomes more important than vehicle ownership itself.
You can find tradition in all its horsepower glory at almost any booth here sponsored by a major automobile manufacturer. But if you want to get a good idea of where the global automobile industry is going, what it actually is thinking, visit the Continental Technical Corp. booth in Frankfurt Convention Hall 5.1, or stroll over to Hall 3.1 and spend time with all of the nontraditional automotive companies — IBM, SAP Hana, T-Mobile, Google, Apple, and battery and traffic-mapping technology companies of all sorts, all of which are developing what transportation researchers Thomas R. Koehler and Dirk Wollschlaeger call “the digital transformation of the automobile.”
The digital automotive world, as real as that of 500-horsepower cars, is being pushed by European and North American governments that want to see an end to traffic deaths and congestion and air fouled by vehicular emissions. They are demanding a more efficient use of limited natural resources.
The German government, for example, through its establishment of the Ministry of Digital Vehicle Infrastructure, is encouraging private companies and local governments to develop technologies that make transporting 12 people at one time — allowing them to stay in touch with their social, work or academic worlds all the while — as real a possibility as moving from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds or less.
The idea is not to deprive anyone of the joy of driving, or to in any way block freedom of mobility, says Elmar Degenhart, chairman of the Continental executive board. The purpose of the emerging digital automotive world, with its emphasis on intelligent vehicles such as the Frankfurt Sprinter and technologies such as cloud computing, traffic mapping and automated driving, ultimately is “zero accidents, which is not utopia,” Degenhart said.
But Degenhart said his promise of “zero traffic accidents,” or a driving world in which getting there makes more sense than individually owning the car that gets you there, is not that far off.
“The technology for this is getting closer and closer to being ready for use on the road,” Degenhart said. When? He estimated that 2025 is not unreasonable to see vehicles such as fully automated Sprinters ferrying us about.
It is not impossible. It certainly makes more sense than 12 people driving 12 cars or other vehicles to get to where they want to go, trying to park each one of them, missing out on work or other communications while in traffic, risking a crash or other mishap every motorized inch of the way.
Bottom line: I’d rather be a passenger in a Frankfurt Luxury Sprinter than behind the wheel of any van. Writing and researching in transit beats worrying about traffic and other drivers any day.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Both Sprinter models are amazingly maneuverable full-size vans. The one I drove in the United States, equipped with individual seat belts, could be used as a small school bus. The one I enjoyed as a passenger in Germany would be the perfect commuting vehicle for people who want to get work done before reaching the office — or, yes, with the right communications equipment, it could be used as a mobile classroom.
Head-turning quotient: The Sprinter is a full-size van, not inherently pretty. But it can be made visually impressive inside and out.
Body/layout: The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is an imminently customizable full-size, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive van available with gasoline or diesel engines. Sprinter vans can be seen anywhere in Western Europe. They are increasingly popular in North America.
Engine/transmission: The U.S. model comes with a 2.1-liter, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder diesel engine (161 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque). That engine is linked to a seven-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.
Capacities: Seating is for up to 12 people. Fuel capacity is 26.4 gallons. Ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel is required.
Safety: The Sprinter 2500 that I drove in the United States had ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes; four-wheel anti-lock brake protection; emergency braking assistance; post-collision safety system; tire-pressure monitoring; individual seat belts for all passengers; and side and head air bags. The Frankfurt Luxury Sprinter came with a raft of advanced electronic safety and communications equipment.
Pricing: The 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 12-passenger commuter sold in the United States is priced at $51,200. The Frankfurt Luxury Sprinter was “nearly three times that much,” to quote a German Mercedes dealer’s unofficial estimate.