Ola Källenius has been a member of Daimler AG’s board of management since January, 2015, and he’s currently director of Group Research & Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. Källenius is also widely expected to be heir-apparent to Daimler Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche, when the 64-year-old Zetsche’s current contract expires in December, 2019.
That could bode well for auto enthusiasts generally and Mercedes loyalists in the United States in particular. Källenius, 48, has spent six-plus years at the Mercedes assembly plant in Alabama, where he became a loyal fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team and ended his run as president & CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International. His credits include a stint as director of operations at McLaren Automotive Ltd during development and launch of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren hyper-car, managing director at Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines Ltd. in Brixworth, U.K., and managing director of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. He’s also an impressive driver in the seat of an E63 AMG.
Källenius sat down with reporters at the recent launch of the updated S-Class and covered topics ranging from the return of the inline Mercedes six to the coming of autonomy to the staying power of V12s.
Q: Your new 3.0-liter inline six is the first production engine we’ve seen that generates 48 volts. Do you expect a fairly rapid roll-out of 48 volt technology going forward? Not just for Mercedes, but in the industry as a whole?
Källenius: Absolutely. As far as Mercedes is concerned, 48 volts in the S-Class is the first car of many. The road ahead will see much, much broader coverage–really from top to bottom on 48 volt technology, paired with plug-in hybrids as well. As we are approaching lower and lower CO2 regulations in all relevant regions –Europe, North America, China—it’s the combination. That means 48 volt in very large volumes, plug-in hybrids in significant volumes and then battery electric vehicles. For us, it’s an all-of-the-above scenario, and I think you’ll see it across the industry as well. There are just too many things you can do with 48 volts to ignore it.
Q: And yet we’re not getting the inline six in the updated S-Class in the States. A lot of in-tune people were convinced we would, and at face value it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Källenius: Let me talk about the engine and then I’ll talk about the rollout strategy. We’re trying to achieve superior performance with silk-like NVH. You know the benefits of an inline six, and an engine without the belts, and it’s the first application that I know of with an integrated starter-alternator, which makes better start-stop and host of advantages. It’s very power dense, and there’s a big pay-off in CO2 (reduction). The inline six is the first of a new breed. That technology will find itself in two other engines over the next few years.
With regard to the American markets, good things come to those who wait. When we introduce a brand new technology we often start with one car, we start in a region, and then step-by-step we kind of proliferate that technology into other regions and cars. Eventually, it will get to the US, as it will to all other big and relevant markets. Obviously, I know which car it is, but that’s a different press meeting. To tell you that I would have to reveal a few things that are not yet known to the public. I’ll throw you at least one bone: The S-class will not be the first car in the U.S. with the 48-volt six.
Q: Nor is there a plug-in hybrid as you launch this S-Class, as there was with the previous generation. We thought we might see the inductive charging you’ve been working on.
Källenius: The plug-in comes this fall. We’ve extended (the electric-only) range on that, to about 31 miles in the European cycle, and the plug-in take rate is steadily growing. We started the inductive charging project relatively early and we will go to market with it next year, as a 2018 feature, though I’m not sure the line-up is set. The way it works is relatively simple for the user. Technically for us, it was a medium challenge to get there, but we’re close.
You basically just put a plate on the ground on your driveway or in your garage. You plug that in and then you have the corresponding plate underneath the car. When you drive in you can see in your instrument cluster how you’re driving over the plate, and it gives you directions so that you stop in the right place. If you have an electric tooth brush you know you put it on the little thing, it’s the same principle. Then you just step out of the car and that’s it.
It’s relatively expensive technology, so it’s an option. It’s about (35 percent) of the charge rate of a Level II plug-in charger, but this is the first generation and that will improve, and for a lot of people it might be worth the convenience.
Q: This S-Class has some of the most sophisticated self-driving technology we’ve seen—as if it could almost deliver Level 3 autonomy. How far off is Level 3?
(Ed. note: In Level 3 autonomy, the operator is able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. The driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but he or she is not required to monitor freeway travel, for example.)
Källenius: If you look at what the S-class can do … I would call it the Level 2-plus or a Level 2-plus, plus. If we would take the inhibitors out then it could do Level 3 in many, many, many driving situations. The problem is that the regulatory environment is still heterogeneous on Level 3 and above. At the moment we’re in discussions with authorities literally around the world to nail that down and try to create as a homogeneous set of requirements as possible, because for consistency reasons and also engineering reasons the closer those regulatory frameworks are the better.
You can in general terms say that Level 3 is a system by which you can let the car drive and you can look the other way, and you’re not responsible for a certain use case, but not all the time. When the regulatory environment is clear and when we feel it is absolutely safe–we’re carrying the star on the hood and it’s crucial that we don’t take a slightly reckless, maybe technologically optimistic position—we can introduce that technology, and it’s not that far away.
A job opportunity for motorheads? Even autonomous cars need drivers during development.
In parallel, we have a Level 4 and 5 effort going. Is that something completely different or is it just more of the same? It’s both. I’m just going to bundle those in one bucket and call it a robot car that drives itself. And the most obvious use case for that in the beginning is a robot taxi.
Why? It’s phenomenally expensive to do this. The number of sensors you have to put on the car, the computing power and so on adds tens of thousands of dollars once you get it into production. Where do you have a business case for something like that? You have it in a robot taxi scenario, where you can take a city or a part of the city and say “okay I’m going to put a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, a thousand, robot taxis into this area.” The amortization comes through not paying the driver. You could have a very quick amortization, so our effort on Level 4, 5 is robot taxi first. In our case the commercialization of that happens between 2020 and 2025 where we start rolling that out—either through our own mobility services that we’re building up or as a partner with other mobility services. We’re pretty open-minded on that.
That, and on the truck side. It might be platooning in tandem with another truck with a driver. Or perhaps the driver in the second truck can be resting while the system is active, which would then lead to a total longer working time for that truck. Which is of course an economical benefit. The truck needs to make money for its owner. In an ideal case the truck is running 24/7.
It will not be resting in peace anytime soon.
Q: You’re talking a lot about autonomy and efficiency, yet V12 engines continue with this updated S-Class. Will the next full re-do bring the end of the S600 or S65 AMG?
Källenius: The V12 is around here for the foreseeable future. It’s a small clientele of connoisseurs, granted, but strong. I once met a very big AMG customer, and we had a new V8 that we wanted to demonstrate. I asked, “Why don’t you go for a ride?” and he goes “No, no, no, no, no, no! I only get in V12s.” And he was serious. Turns out he had 35 Mercedes V12s in different versions and colors. That’s an extreme example, but for some customers the V12 is the only choice, and that’s not easy to walk away from.
We will cater to that clientele with a very, very capable V12 for the foreseeable future. Whatever the regulation, we’ll meet the regulation. There can always be a technical answer to any technical challenge. Twenty, 30 years–how long that segment has legs I don’t know precisely, but we have no plans to give up on it.