Mercedes Chairman Talks Tesla, EVs


Mercedes chairman Dieter Zetsche is one of the most influential men in the auto business worldwide. At the unveiling of the Mercedes F 015 autonomous concept car recently, Car & Driver got to sit down with him and discuss the future. As it turns out, Zetsche has some interesting insight into a world currently enthralled by what Tesla is doing and what tech giants like Google and Apple might do.

I’ve highlighted some of the most pertinent bits to our particular brand of reader.

On autonomous cars:

“We have partially autonomous driving now up to 15 mph, the next steps will be freeway driving of up to 75 mph, including passing. We will also launch self-parking cars without the presence of a driver. But a vehicle like the F 015 is surely for the next decade, not this one.”

On using carbon fiber to build production cars:

“We have previously built a fully carbon-fiber car with the SLR McLaren, and we have a few series-production parts, but we are not working on a fully carbon-fiber body and we do not believe that makes sense.” (Take that, BMW!)

On why mainstream car buyers aren’t excited about electric cars:

“Put simply, the customer gets a car with less range, longer refueling times, somewhat less space, and a higher price tag. Of course, there are some advantages, like the torque from zero rpm, and there are people who simply want to assume a leadership role in technology. But [customers] are focused mainly on value. As long as there are disadvantages, it will only be possible to gain customers through incentives and subsidies. I am convinced it is the technology of the future, however. The question is how long the transition will take. You can accelerate this process—or let it go its natural course.” (Translation: Patience, grasshopper.)

On the future of the internal combustion engine:

“It will be around for a long time, especially [in regard to commercial vehicles], but passenger cars will increasingly use hybrid powertrains. And eventually even the battery-electric vehicle will sell in relevant numbers.”

What role will Tesla play in the future of automobiles?

“If you choose to believe the financial analysts, a very heavy role. First, I have great respect for the work Elon Musk has done so far. Whether he will succeed with his future plans remains to be seen. At least he has managed to offset the aforementioned disadvantages of the electric motor with other fun factors, and he has been more successful at it than his competitors. The big question is whether this success is scalable and whether it can be transmitted to other segments. And I don’t have an answer to that.”

Will Mercedes build a “Tesla fighter” ?

“We will most certainly not build a Tesla fighter. We have our own strategy and aim to define our own products. Of course, we observe the competition and try to understand its strengths—but we act, we don’t react. And if we build a fighter, it will be directed at our established competitors, not at Tesla.”

While the rest of the world seems to be in “We must run and tell the king!” mode about Tesla and Apple and Google and how the tech companies are going to disrupt the car business, Dieter Zetsche is being very focused and pragmatic. Mercedes will continue to do what it does best and attempt to do it better than any other company on the planet. Is that a wise course or a stubborn refusal to react to inevitable changes? Time will tell.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.