While Mercedes CTO Markus Schäfer was in Silicon Valley to visit the company’s research and development center in Sunnyvale recently, he sat down for an interview with The Verge to talk about his company’s plan to sell only electric cars by 2030 and where it stands on the issue of self-driving cars. “Very, very interesting discussions were had about potential partnerships in the future,” Schäfer said.
Mercedes Level 3 Program
While Mercedes is moving aggressively forward with its transition to electric cars, it is also working to become the first automaker to have a passenger vehicle for sale in the United States with Level 3 driver assistance technology. Such systems allow the driver to not pay attention to the road or control the vehicle under very select circumstances — typically on the highway.
Part of the reason for the visit to California was to meet with state regulators and get feedback from the DMV, California Highway Patrol, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the Level 3 package Mercedes is developing.
“They understand technology, the sense of redundancy [in computing], our safety philosophy, and even how we educate customers on this Level 3 system. So a very important milestone here, meeting with the regulators, explaining the system, and preparing the application,” Shäfer said.
The Mercedes Drive Pilot Level 3 features would allow drivers under certain circumstances (while on the highway and driving below a certain speed) to remove their hands from the steering wheel and stop paying attention to the road. Nothing else on the market allows drivers to essentially check out from the driving experience, The Verge says. The closest thing we have in the United States right now are hands-free systems from BMW, Ford, and GM, all of which require the driver to continue to pay attention.
Yet potentially being the first to sell a passenger vehicle that can drive itself in certain circumstances does equate to a jump into the ride-hailing mobility space. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that self-driving Teslas could earn money for their owners and, at one point, announced there would be a million self-driving Tesla taxis on the road in 2020. [Note to readers: It is now 2022 and soon to be 2023. Last week, Elon dragooned some of his top self-driving engineers into the effort to clean up the Twitter mess. In August, the California DMV accused Tesla of of using false and misleading language to tout its Full Self Driving technology.]
It’s been a tough week for autonomous driving companies. Argo. AI, which was heavily supported by both Ford and Volkswagen, has closed its doors. Employees were reportedly told that some would be offered jobs with either Ford or Volkswagen, while others would receive a severance package. The technology would also be split between the two companies, although it’s not known which automaker will get what. During a third quarter earnings call, Ford announced that it would be focusing on Level 2 and Level 3 driver assistance systems instead of vehicles that could be used as robotaxis.
For Mercedes, robotaxis are no longer a goal. “We thought in 2016 or 2017, we could solve the robotaxi problem quite quickly,” Schäfer said. But committing to both a ride-hailing solution and a passenger driver assistance solution was expensive. Something had to be scrapped, and it was the taxis driven by robots.
Self-driving taxis that operate all day, every day, in all kinds of weather, have been a dream for many for decades, none less than Anthony Levendowski, the bad boy of Google’s original autonomous car program. Now he programs systems for autonomous trucks operating within the confines of industrial sites. He says for the foreseeable future, that’s about as much complexity as any driverless vehicle will be able to handle. “You’d be hard pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little. Forget about profits — what’s the combined revenue of all the robo-taxi, robo-truck, robo-whatever companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it’s more like zero.”
Ironically, Mercedes has been one of the primary sources of taxis for decades in Europe and in much of the rest of the world, largely because of its reputation for building tough cars that can endure the rigors of constant use for years on end. It will continue to take part in that lucrative market, but it’s definitely not the automaker’s priority to get into the robotaxi world, according to Schäfer, who doesn’t see the benefit of a self-driving Mercedes taxi. “Would you wait five minutes longer for a Mercedes robotaxi? I don’t think so,” he said.
For Mercedes, Efficiency Is Key
Tesla might not have to worry about battling the German automaker in the robotaxi game (whenever that happens), but it should be concerned about Mercedes’ recent rollout of electric cars.
The EQS, in sedan and SUV format, the EQE in sedan and SUV format, and the EQB from Mercedes, are either already in US showrooms or will be soon. The automaker has been aggressive in its introduction of EVs, with more on the way. This current crop of EVs is based on 400 volt architecture, which means they can charge at 200 kW of power while hooked up to compatible DC fast charging stations.
According to Schäfer, more energy efficient vehicles are on the way and will be based on the 900 volt architecture of the EQXX concept vehicle. He said that by 2024, the Mercedes electric car platform will feature a new battery chemistry with a silicone anode, different types of cells, improved packaging density, and new cooling concepts. The motors used in those future Mercedes electric vehicles will be patterned after the more efficient motor developed for the EQXX.
The result, he said, is that “you will see a dramatic reduction in electric consumption compared to what’s out there today.” When pressed about what this efficiency means, he acknowledged the company is targeting a 20 to 30% range improvement. He thinks the additional range, coupled with improvements in the EV charging infrastructure, may make it possible for some drivers to chose a less expensive electric car with a smaller battery that will perfectly meet the driving needs of many customers.
A lot of this thinking is focused on the need to find price parity between electric cars and conventional cars. “Honestly, all our calculations and intelligence showed it would take a really, really long time to reach parity,” Schäfer said. He noted that if it wasn’t there before the supply chain issues, it’s definitely something that’s not going to happen anytime soon unless there’s a breakthrough in battery chemistry.
Mercedes plans to go fully electric five years ahead of California’s policy to no longer allow the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Mercedes seems ready for the next step in the evolution of automobiles, concludes The Verge — a future with more efficient vehicles and a limited number of autonomous functions, but no robotaxis. It will leave that to the autonomous ride-hailing devotees, if they can figure out how to make it happen.
Efficiency will become the most valued characteristic of electric cars, and that is where Mercedes is concentrating its development of EVs. It’s rather refreshing for a major manufacturer like Mercedes to put autonomy into proper perspective. It’s a delightful dream, but not one that is actually practical. Sometimes the adults in the room have to set limits on playtime.
The dream of self-driving cars has always been with us, but billions have been invested over the years on the technology with very little to show for it. One gets the impression that Mercedes is intent on teaching the upstarts a few lessons about the difference between theory and reality and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.