If you're the guy in charge of leading Daimler—you know, the world’s largest luxury carmaker, one of Europe’s most important tech companies, and the inventor of the automobile—into a threatening future, it can’t hurt to have a name that sounds made for a superhero. Good thing it's a guy named Wilko Stark helming CASE (that’s connectivity, autonomous, shared and services, and electric mobility), which Daimler launched in 2016 to address the most promising and troubling trends under one roof. He’s the fellow tasked with forging a 20-year blueprint for Daimler and its flagship, Mercedes-Benz.
Between electrification, autonomy, car sharing, and ride hailing, the car industry is undergoing a monumental, unprecedented shift. So we sat down with Stark to hear about his plans for bringing Daimler into this future—no cape necessary.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Diversify Your Portfolio
When he took over CASE a year ago, Stark also picked up the reins of Daimler’s nascent electric mobility brand EQ (electric intelligence), which will roll out at least 10 zero-emission models by 2022. To go with it, Daimler added the contents of its mobility portfolio, including the most popular ride-hailing app in all of Europe, MyTaxi, car-sharing platform car2go, public-transit app Moovel, and black-car service Blacklane.
Stark: It’s a great opportunity, the most interesting job within Mercedes, to define the future. And not only define the future from a strategic point of view, but also make it happen. You have to combine these trends. Our target is to be at the forefront of this development. Like we did 130 years ago when we invented the automobile, our ambition is to define the future of mobility.
We have all the technology you need. If you consider self-driving cars and mobility services, what do you need? You need a platform for mobility services, an app. This is what we have with MyTaxi. You need a fleet-management system. This is what we have with Daimler Fleet Management System. You need an asset provider, someone to finance it, so we have Daimler Financial Services. And then you need the vehicle, fully integrated, and you need all the autonomous-driving stuff. So we can cover the whole value chain.
Mobility Trends Are an Opportunity, Not an Existential Crisis
You don’t need to be a three-comma futurist to predict how these trends will shake the calcified automotive industry. The coming change has automakers scrambling to reframe themselves as glimmering tech companies, à la Tesla, rather than antiquated builders of oil-gulping people movers. But what some see as a threat, Mercedes-Benz calls a chance.
Stark: Failure is absolutely a possibility. But that’s why we have to combine these trends, because in the future we will still have cars. If you look at the global market, the number of cars sold is still rising, and will rise over the next 10 to 20 years. So there’s a huge market potential. In inner cities you will have more car-sharing opportunities and mobility services, but this doesn’t mean that people will not have their own cars anymore. It’s a combination of different worlds.
The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars
Of course the phasing-out of traditional cars is already taking place: the announcement of the Paris government to ban first diesels and then combustion-engine cars. And many major cities are going to go 100 percent electric.
Truly self-driving cars will be applied in the first step in mobility services, like MyTaxi, Uber, Lyft, etc, for one simple reason: The sensor technology and computing power will be quite expensive. Private customers will have to wait until it gets cheaper, because the first step will be far too expensive.
But this doesn’t matter because if you have a self-driving car embedded in an Uber or MyTaxi fleet you don’t need a driver anymore, so you can balance the cost for the driver and put it into the technology. This development is definitely coming, but it won’t come overnight. So one part of your fleet will be self-driving cars, but there will still be a huge portion of human drivers in Uber and MyTaxi.
We have a clear rollout plan in which kind of cities we’re going to enter. First of all, for self-driving cars, the weather conditions should be pretty good. It’s probably more in the South. And we have to build up a good relationship with the city; that’s quite important. They are all, everywhere, interested in self-driving cars. Everybody is knocking on our door, but they are of course looking for electric vehicles. And you have to build up a different approach from Lyft or especially Uber, because we want to define and develop a future together with the cities. In the next decade we will begin to see self-driving cars in major cities in Europe and the US.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Other Next-Level Technologies Will Have Their Place
Electric cars relying strictly on batteries have their limitations, especially when it comes to heavy duty and long-range applications. For a truly zero-emission future, technologies like hydrogen fuel cells will play an integral role. And while Japanese and Korean brands are more visibly committing to hydrogen in commuter vehicles, Daimler sees the technology’s short-term potential in the commercial sector.
Stark: First of all, we are now going to launch the GLC Fuel Cell, which shows we are 100 percent capable of this technology. It’s actually a plug-in hybrid, so it’s a battery combined with a hydrogen fuel cell.
The big advantage is we will develop fuel cell stacks in the future that we can apply in buses and in semi-heavy trucks, etc. Especially in buses, fuel cells make sense as a range extender; you can just put the tanks on top of the vehicle, so it’s not dangerous if you have a crash or whatever.
The challenge regarding fuel cells is it’s still quite expensive, much more expensive compared to passenger cars, but for these applications for trucks and buses, and even if you talk about the third dimension—the Volocopter—we have a fuel cell on board to extend the range.
Volocopter is an aviation startup we have investment in, and we also have discussed maybe having a fuel cell onboard to extend its electric range. Two to three people can sit in it, and you can fly 50 to 100 kilometers. It’s like a drone for persons, so this is what we’re referring to as our third dimension. Because the battery is quite heavy, applying fuel cells is a possible solution.
EQ Will Lead an Electric Revolution, but AMGs Will Escape the Guillotine
Mercedes plans to shift from fossil fuels to ion in a three-tier system, all under the EQ banner: EQ Boost for a hybrid setup that makes V-6 perform like a V-8, EQ Power for its next-generation plug-in hybrids offering an EV range of 30 miles, and EQ for 100 percent electric, zero-emission vehicles. But AMG will never lose its seat at the table.
Stark: We strongly believe there will always be a market to drive by yourself, because driving is fun. Therefore, AMG will always exist. In 10, 20, 30 years there will still be a market for these cars. AMG is very important in the US, and it’s a fantastic brand, so the future of AMG will also be electric—or a part will be electric. We call it EQ Power, the same name as with the plug-in hybrids. It’s a smaller battery but high power, and that is what we will apply in our AMG engines.
We will also have the EQ Boost in AMG like the GT-R four-door coupe we just introduced in Geneva, with the inline “53” six-cylinder coupled to a 48-voltage system. It is absolutely great because you have the whole torque range right from the very beginning, so the I-6 really drives like a V-8. In an electric engine, you have instant torque, therefore the acceleration especially up to 50 mph is absolutely crazy. The boost in the 48-volt system is not only when you start accelerating but also in higher speeds.
But in the future, for the high, high, upper end, we are going to introduce plug-in hybrids for AMG, which we will also call EQ Power. The performance of these cars will be really stunning. Absolutely stunning.
Who’s Afraid of Google and Apple?
Despite bold headlines from the likes of Apple, Google sister company Waymo, and Uber, Stark puts on a brave face when discussing the odds of tech companies paving serious inroads into building cars.
Stark: Those guys have a lot of technology, but nobody has interest in entering the car business for one simple reason: Building and developing cars is much, much more complex than just building a smartphone. An iPhone doesn’t have to withstand a crash at 60 mph, and that’s a big difference. Therefore our core business is not at stake.
We can promise you CASE is already up and running and under development, and by 2022 we will come out with 10 battery-electric vehicles, and we will cover all the segments, starting from the smart going up to the big large sedans, and also the large SUV. And the all-electric GLC is going to be launched later this year, sometime after summer. And the self-driving car, which of course will be electric. It’s coming in the next decade. It’s all on its way.
You can find Nicolas Stecher on Twitter at @man_vs_himeself.