For Mercedes, electrification is just one path to the future

To survive in a tumultuous industry, even large corporations need to stay nimble, and Mercedes-Benz is certainly painting a difficult target.

Daimler AG

The evening before the 2017 Frankfurt Auto Show kicked off in Germany, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars Division, took to the stage at a private event. There, he announced a series of investments and advancements that would point the way toward the future of the collective of automotive brands contained within Daimler, namely: Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-AMG and Smart, plus the upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQ brand. In doing so, he hung the future of these brands not on a single vision for future transportation, but on multiple.

As part of this Zetsche announced a whopping 10 billion euro ($12 billion) investment in electrification. This will cover directives like ensuring that every Smart model introduced after 2020 will be fully electric, and that every Mercedes-Benz model after 2022 will be offered with some sort of plug-in hybrid or full-electric drivetrain.

This massive pile of cash also includes investment in hydrogen fuel cells, launching more cars like the GLC F-Cell. Surprisingly, Zetsche also confirmed a 3 billion euro investment in research into advanced diesel power trains, bucking the industry trend away from oil burners and saying that the company "can do the one thing without abandoning the other."

After that conference we spoke with Wilco Stark, head of Daimler and Mercedes-Benz Strategy, for a little more clarity on what the future holds. While the movement of Smart to be fully electric by 2020 is the most dramatic proclaiment, Stark said that there's plenty to come on the Mercedes-Benz front. By 2022, Daimler will have 10 fully electric models. We'll see the first of these in 2019, followed fast by 40 more Mercedes-Benz models with some sort of plug-in hybrid architecture.

But they won't just be Mercedes-Benz models, they'll be part of the new sub-brand called EQ. This brand has been seen on numerous concepts in the past and showed up on plenty in Frankfurt, including the sleek Concept EQA coupe and even the outrageous Project One, which was labeled "EQ Power+."

Not only will these models usher in a means of propulsion, they'll carry a new design language for Mercedes-Benz called Progressive Luxury. "Progressive Luxury will be a very, very clean language, it will be without any lines, completely different," Stark said. "If you take, for example a steam train and compare it to an electric train, this is a bit the same difference."

Indeed, models like the Concept EQA are far simpler, far more basic in shape than many modern Mercedes-Benz cars, which bear deep creases and aggressive front grilles. Meanwhile, from some angles it can be difficult to tell which side is the front of the F 015 concept.

As an aside, these new drivetrains will also push Daimler cars away from the front-wheel drive layout traditionally found on smaller, more economical cars. "Front-wheel drive is not an appropriate solution," Stark said, as the generally increased and more broadly distributed weight of these cars makes front drive less effective. Instead, they'll largely be rear- or all-wheel drive.

The focus on purity of visual design is also a major factor in Daimler working on its own autonomous research, not partnering with a company like Waymo. Stark said, "The whole sensor kit needs to be integrated into the whole package of the vehicle so it really looks like a sexy, compelling car... It's not an add-on that you put on the roof, and that's a big difference."

However, Daimler will partner with companies like Google and Facebook to enable another, and a major, feature of cars like the Smart Vision EQ: social networking. That car, operating in "robocab" mode, will be able to offer to pick up other passengers along your route to reduce the cost of your trip. But, it wouldn't just grab random pedestrians, instead attempting to find people with interests similar to yours -- almost like a vehicular matchmaking service.

On the outside that seems like a lot of different directions for one corporation to move simultaneously: autonomy, electrification and digital matchmaking, plus the not-inconsequential art of bundling all that into a package that's desirable to consumers. But, with the industry shifting faster than ever while supposed disruptors rake in ever-more confounding valuations, established corporations cannot afford to linger, and a target moving in every direction is surely harder to hit than one standing still.

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