Drive time with Unimog


According to Transport Systems Catapult, mobility as a service promises ‘seamless journeys, planned in advance via smart phone app which arranges taxis, train tickets, bus routes and more – adapting the itinerary as you go based on real-time information about delays’. The Unimog from Mercedes-Benz on the other hand has been called a Swiss army knife on wheels. Based on my visit to Unimog Live this month, I think Unimog has a healthy lead.

Then again Mercedes’ adaptable tractor/truck/implement carrier and extreme off-roader has had several decades head start, with the first drive of its prototype taking place in October 1946.

Over the years, the vehicle whose German name translates to ‘universally applicable motorised machine’ has had a wide range of roles, including military, firefighting and disaster relief and now claims more than 1,000 applications.

A Unimog can ford 1.2 metres of water

The Millbrook proving ground venue is more accessible by car than by public transport. Although there is a train station with the same name a few hundred yards away, National Rail told me I’d have to leave my Surrey home the night before to get there on time. With the other option being a multi-stage train journey to Bedford followed by a 20 minute taxi ride, I decided to take the car.

‘At least you’ll miss the traffic,’ the Mercedes press officer had cheerfully told me when it became clear how early I would have to leave – and he was right. Cutting across London rather than risk the vagaries of the M25, I felt a mixture of relief and – dare I say – schadenfreude as I saw the lengthy queues in the other direction. My trip up the M1 was only slightly impeded by 20 miles of ‘smart motorway’ speed restrictions and promises of congestion that never materialised.

Having left the motorway, the closure of the road I was supposed to take threw a small spanner in the works but Google Maps on the iPhone came to my rescue. Not quite a seamless journey though.

The point of Unimog Live, as Mercedes’ very hospitable representatives explained, was a perception that the vehicle has potential for far greater sales in the UK than at present, in a range of markets including agriculture and highway maintenance.

On the latter, they may have a point, with the same vehicle capable of being used for snow ploughing or gritting in the winter, then used for verge or hedge cutting in the summer. It can also ford water to a depth of 1.2 metres, which could come in handy for flood recovery work.

The event was structured around the themes of drivemog, playmog and talkmog, with the chance to drive the vehicle off-road being the main attraction for me, although it may have been a bit of a busman’s holiday for others present.

Visiting Millbrook is itself quite an experience, with your phone camera being taped up on the way in and the need to be escorted around roads and tracks where live testing is taking place. I could tell you about the many top secret vehicles of the future I saw being tested but then…

Having utterly disgraced myself – [ and Surveyor - Ed] – in the remote control model Unimog competition (prize = 1 Unimog), when my turn came to drive the vehicle I thought best to let the instructor show me the ropes over the more extreme off road section, including driving into a big pond and out again.

When it came to it, driving the Unimog was pretty straightforward with AutomaticShift and an automatic ‘exhaust brake’ helping you down the steeper slopes – once you learned to trust it.

Playmog offered a chance to see the vehicle’s many uses, including carrying cranes and cherry-pickers and a road rail version that can pull 1,000 tonnes. Another feature is the ability to change from left-hand to right-hand drive in a matter of seconds, with the whole steering column and pedals sliding from one side of the cab to the other.

Talkmog included a demo of Mercedes’ frighteningly comprehensive Fleetboard telematics package, which allows drivers to be marked remotely and in real-time on a combination of style and degree of difficulty, much like Tom Daley.

The journey home, this time on the M25, offered a similar mix of relief and schadenfreude, with some horrendous clockwise queues. Britain may be Brexiting but some German concepts can still be pretty useful.

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