Big Interview: Setting A Class Apart

India is a significant geography for Stuttgart’s Daimler-owned Mercedes-Benz. In many ways India is in the driving seat, for the company, in terms of technology and innovation around safety. Some 4,500 engineers, between Bangalore and Pune, work on innovation, design and development of various features including electronic components, control units, navigation systems, seats, bumpers, door modules for all Mercedes-Benz vehicles for world markets. The company says there is a piece of India in every Mercedes vehicle. In a freewheeling interview Manu Saale, managing director & CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development (MBRDI) spoke to Mini Tejaswi of Financial Chronicle about the 130-year-old German auto giant’s passion for safety and penchant for cutting-edge innovation. He also spoke on issues ranging from Mercedes-Benz’ global readiness for future of mobility, connected cars, autonomous driving, the cultural transformation happening within the company, changing car markets, increasing customer expectations from intelligent cars to the worrying road lane discipline and traffic light situation in India. Excerpts:
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technology features of Mercedes-Benz cars in terms of safety and other features?

Everything about Mercedes is cutting edge. It’s a tech marvel and there’s a huge amount of engineering that goes into making a Mercedes. India is proud because we contribute to several aspects including technology and the design - body of the car, chassis, components, the electrical and electronic parts, the IT inside and IT outside the car and entire gamut of consumer lifestyle that comes into the car.

What’s the future of cars and driving experience and what is India’s contribution?

The futuristic technology that will go into the car in the future when it comes to connectivity, autonomous driving, shared mobility and electric. These are the four future strategies that we are talking about; India is contributing to all these aspects.

What are connected cars? When do we see them on Indian roads?

Daimler AG believes mobility is changing rapidly around us and the future of mobility will be dramatically different from what the last 130 years was. In the past, it was about dreaming, arriving in life, buying a Merc and driving around.

The future of the younger generation is going to be very different. It’s not only about ownership – a lot of people love to park a Mercedes in their porch and show off. But going forward, the expectation out of the car technically will be very different compared to the past.

What are these new emerging customer expectations from a car?

Starting from a simple thing – how automated the car can get, to how much of my lifestyle can I carry in the car? In the past, if you were supposed to come-in and wear your seat belts, obey all driver distraction guidelines and just say – I can’t do anything, I can’t answer a call, I can’t turn my head off as I need to be either look at the road or the navigation system. The future is, a car that’s basically aiding you to be as natural as you want to be, maybe even allowing you continue some of the duties – like continue talking to someone over the phone as you walk-in – connecting to the head unit and the car would say: continue talking, I’m taking over, I know these streets and the maps are in my head unit, I can navigate you well enough within the city, all the safety features are turned on, so continue talking. This would be a different world and something like a fantasy compared to what you are doing today. The intelligence that comes into your car is probably the first expectation that people may have around the world.

How many of such intelligent, connected cars we have now?

You don’t see it like a paradigm transformation from yesterday to today but what you see is a step-by- step technology change in cars. Today in Europe, the amount of assistance features that a driver can get in a car towards independence and safety are amazing. If you’re a regular visitor to Europe you see every year, things changing. Connectivity to the ecosystem, connectivity between vehicles, connectivity to the infrastructure around you is changing step-by- step.

Is Mercedes already making connected cars?

Absolutely! The latest S Class, that has been released recently and coming to India soon, has the latest when it comes to tech. The amount of technology is like – when you get stuck in a traffic jam and take your hands off the steering wheel - whatever is allowed by amalgamation and local regulation – let it assist you in a limp mode as the car takes over. Today, it’s already a reality and on the safety perspective, there are so many safety tech features in an S Class. Starting from lane keeping, attention assist, and driver advanced assistance systems where you can basically feel much safer.

How will safety and cool features of a connected or autonomous car go hand in hand?

When someone sits in a car and Mercedes-Benz is committed to safety, not just luxury nor just a piece of mobility to take them from point A to point B. And therefore, you can see a lot of incremental steps in both these directions that are happening because that has been well thought through and put on the roads after millions of kilometers of testing that the end user feels safe in a car and the piece of tech is acceptable. Some of these expectations that we have from an automobile demands a certain amount of social acceptance. For example: It’s about are you prepared to take your hands off the wheel and still feel safe? It’s about how much do you trust on the software on-board, systems to help you navigate, decide to change routes, suggest restaurants, doctors and all of that. Today, probably there’s a bridge between you and the car, that’s your mobile phone. Imagine, the whole thing is integrated in a car. It helps you navigate with the maps, restaurant, if you’re sick – the doctor you want to meet, en route there are two of your friends driving on the same way because it’ll show the social contacts. The car can tell you about nearby gas stations, restaurants, hospitals and everything you require while commuting. There a whole host of digital tech that makes your drive comfortable and safer, also as normal as possible.

You work for a company that makes super safe cars. Unfortunately in India some 150,000 people die in road accident every year. How do you handle this irony?

Yes, that’s a mounting concern that we have as a company. It’s sad that India is No. 1 in the world, in road accident deaths, when we don’t want to be there. Most these accidents are due to lack of safety concerns. The reasons are not wide and varied. It starts from driver behavior, to bad road designs, and infrastructure issues.

It’s not necessarily related to today’s cars. Any model car you get from a non-Mercedes stable should have basic safety features. There’s an amalgamation of rules and regulations we should follow. Unfortunate is that awareness, basic discipline and enforcement are missing. Three years ago, Mercedes-Benz India embarked on a Safe Roads drive, to share the safety knowledge we acquired over 130 years. We conducted road shows, talks, awareness campaigns across the country.

How is Mercedes globally transforming with technology and customer aspirations for future mobility?

Our current CEO Dr Dieter Zetsche started to look at the future of mobility and devised a 3C approach to face the emerging challenges. The first C stands for core business – we are an automotive company, we are in the business of mobility and we will continue to serve Mercedes fans around the world with our cutting edge, luxurious automobiles. The second C stands for CASE – Connected, Autonomous, Share, Electric - the tech transformation that’s happening in that world of mobility.

The third C is directly related to cultural transformation the company needs to undergo. It’s difficult to be No .1 and stay on the top. We are on the top right now because we have been selling over 2 million cars worldwide beating competition last year. We had a fantastic year and looks like we’ll continue to stay on top. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that a CEO at that age and experience looks and says that - the most dangerous part of the journey starts now because people and companies tend to be little bit forgetful and arrogant when they are on the top of the game and successful. Daimler launched an initiative called Leadership 2020, to wake up and remind its people that the future is not just the tech but a cultural transformation that we need to do around the world. Daimler has 285,000 employees worldwide distributed at its headquarters, Stuttgart and around the globe.

How do you see customers and markets changing for Mercedes?

Our customer base around the world is changing. We are selling more cars, outside of Germany and Europe and the trend will continue. We are also targeting a new customer base, different age group and customers with different priorities. China is the No. 1 publicly known market. If you look at any of our sales report, we sold more cars in China than anywhere else in the world. So, the focus is on the Chinese customer, in Asia, Japan, India and other countries. So far Europe has been the priority. The US is still a very attractive market for us, and we see huge volumes coming from there and it’s completely a different market.

To what extent a digital twin can cut the making time of a car?

Today from the drawing board – conceptualisation to production, a car on the platform could take anywhere between 5-6 years. Imagine digital coming in from various parts right now to connect all the dots including manufacturing to crash this timeline by at least a year. It’s a huge achievement. A large part of MBRDI’s digital story is based on envisioning, working, testing and proving a car in a digital domain. This is digital twin. So, if you conceptualise a car in a digital world, keep it alive in the digital world and today’s world you are still developing a physical prototype at some point of time in the lifecycle – you want to test it and you want to homologate it, there is always a reason to go in for a physical prototype. But on the other hand, you push the boundaries of digital so that the twin in the computer is as close a replica to the physical. At one point of time which was a dream situation for us to do away with the physical until a customer orders a car and we manufacture it. This means you technically conceptualise, you style it and you develop it all in the digital domain and as the OEMs would like to call it the first car or the Job No. 1. You would be surprised at the progress we have made and I think, Mercedes is at the forefront when it comes to passenger car development to dream and to have a digital twin. Let’s say, far ahead of competition. We dream quite a lot of things digitally, we solve a lot of problems digitally before we even hit the prototype or test rig to finding out if it works or not. You are saving time and money in millions by just depending on digital.

What’s the scenario for autonomous cars in the global markets? Do you see scope for such cars in India?

The only autonomous car you can buy now, a safe one is from Mercedes. You have to go to Stuttgart for that. The degree of autonomous driving is a lot dictated by legislations and homologation regulations around the world. Maybe, there are test cars that can do better but we need to make sure whatever is allowed in California,

Western Europe, China or wherever we can deliver. But coming back to India, there are technical challenges right now. We have been talking to the ministry on the assistance features, which require us to install certain radars and frequencies that have not been delicensed by the government. I had a chance to mention this recently to our minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari in Delhi.

He is very progressive and open to ideas. They have already delicensed one but we need two more to bring even more advanced features. The chaos on the streets is a mathematical challenge for an engineer to conquer. The absence of lane-keeping, absence of lanes in general and malfunctioning of traffic lights needs to be fixed. I don’t say the quality of roads but the discipline of drivers certainly needs to improve for the software before you can set it on the autonomous feature and relax.

I think these are the basic infrastructural challenges. So, the dependency right now on the electronic eyes and ears of the car looking for traffic lights and stopping is hardly dependable in India. We are still battling those challenges.

Autonomous driving has little to do with quality of roads. We certainly believe every market, including India, has a need for connected and autonomous cars.