Mercedes recently flew John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, to a product reveal event in Austria. (Full disclosure: Mercedes did not extend the same offer to any Gas 2.0 writers, their families or relatives. Besides, I was busy that day.) During the event, Mercedes executive Axel Heix shared his thoughts about electric cars and when Mercedes might build one.
The automotive universe is abuzz with reports that one manufacturer or another is hard at work on a “Tesla killer” — an electric car that will challenge the Model S and Model X head to head and win. Appple, Faraday Future, Atieva and many other start-ups are supposedly designing such cars. Audi is readying its electric SUV, the Q6 e-tron, for production in 2017. BMW has its mysterious i5 in the works. What about Mercedes? Where is their “Tesla killer”?
Not to worry, says Hiex, who has the distinction of being the only auto executive with two exes in his name. Right now, electrics are “city cars,” he says. Only when the charging infrastructure matures will electric cars be ready for prime time. Building that infrastructure will be a “step by step” process that depends largely on fuel economy and emissions regulations coupled with incentives put in place at the national level. In other words, Mercedes has no intention of building a network of chargers similar to the Tesla SuperCharger system.
For now, he says Mercedes believes plug-in hybrid cars are the best solution for today’s driving. His company will have plug-in versions of all its best selling models shortly. “It’s astonishing how much you can do with internal-combustion engines,” Hiex says. Asked when we can expect a dedicated Mercedes electric car, he replied, “Not in the near future.” He thinks it will take 2 or 3 more generations before the time is right for that. A generation in the car business is about 6 years, so expect a Mercedes electric car in 15 to 20 years.
When the right time comes, though, he believes Mercedes will have products worthy of its proud heritage. “It’s a very interesting time and competition is always good,” he said. “As we develop our capabilities [in electrified drivetrains], I’m pretty sure we will be able to build cars that are fully competitive” with any other battery-electric vehicles in the luxury market.
The Mercedes point of view is highly pragmatic. While it wants to be a good corporate citizen and help the environment, it also wants to make a profit from running its business. “We have to keep it at a [financial] level that makes sense,” he says. The message from Mercedes to consumers is this: “Patience, grasshopper.”