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How to convince the customer: Daimler’s driverless car agenda

The Mercedes EQ concept study hit the streets of Austin during SXSW. (Photo: Daimler)

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At conventional motor shows, you will still easily find skeptics of autonomous driving. At South by Southwest, however, Daimler Vice President of Strategy Wilko Stark was preaching to the converted: those who hope driverless cars will be deployed soon. Well, most of them that is.

It’s the place where they unveiled Twitter and where the Shared Economy became a global phenomenon. If there is any place where they believe in progress, it’s the digital conference South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. In the last 30 years, the former music festival gradually evolved into a summit for the intellectual and scientific elite. It’s no surprise then that the automotive industry discovered the conference a while ago. Questions of connectivity, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving are too complex for the industry to solve by themselves, said Wilko Stark, Daimler Vice President of Strategy.

Stark entered the stage to deliver one of the hundreds of keynotes that SXSW offers during the ten festival days. In front of a forward-thinking audience, he praised the idea of autonomous driving. “This idea will change our world as dramatically as the invention of the car 130 years ago.” According to Stark, these changes will impact many aspects of our environment because robocabs will make cities more livable once traffic is running smoothly and parking garages will have become obsolete. But they will also impact our very own life. “Because mobility shapes our own life. Autonomous driving will change our mobility and bring back lost time,” Stark said.

Autonomous driving: 30 years in the making

Speaking to a tech-savvy crowd, Stark emphasized that autonomous driving is by no means a novelty for the company. Mercedes, he said, has been researching the topic for more than 30 years. Stark presented photos of a transporter that was part of the famous research project Prometheus in 1986. Back then, it was packed up to the roof with electronics and processors. “Today we can fit the entire technology into an S-Class and still have space for passengers and luggage,” Stark said in acknowledging the progress made. He went on to predict that once electric drives are added, customers will have even more space: “This is why autonomous driving and electric mobility belong together for us.”

Wilko Stark, Daimler Vice President of Strategy, speaking at SXSW. (Photo: Daimler)

SXSW is the expression of shifting priorities. Even Jens Thiemer, VP Marketing of Mercedes, thinks that the car itself will become less important once autonomous driving has prevailed. He doesn’t believe that by then, anyone will still be interested in new features of an E-Class or S-Class. “But today, some people still prefer booking business or first class although they don’t reach their destination faster. Just like that there will still be people in the future who prefer an autonomous Mercedes over another vehicle,” Thiemer said, seemingly already convinced. “The experience, the entertainment, the comfort we offer to the customers will make the difference.” This is why carmakers like Mercedes are courting content providers in Austin. They will be key to advancing connectivity for the day when a driver no longer has to drive.

SXSW: Even the skeptics are optimistic

At conventional motor shows, you will still easily find skeptics of autonomous driving. At South by Southwest, however, the automotive industry was preaching to the converted. Even consumer advisors and road safety organizations seem open to driverless cars. Experts like David Strickland (Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets) doubted that autonomous vehicles will function one hundred percent and will be error-free in the near future. However, they don’t want to wait because they still see a significant gain in road safety. “What’s a minor incident with a robocar if we can avoid hundreds of fatalities through human error.” But then again, would he be saying the same if the recent fatal uber crash had happened before SXSW? Anyhow, Strickland went on to ask and remind the audience of the introduction of the airbag. “It also hurt a few humans in the beginning, but it saved many lives more. And if it hadn’t been launched at some point, it couldn’t have been further improved either.”

Even Stark admitted that many open questions remain – including ethical issues where a consensus needs to be found. But a lack of definite rules shouldn’t hamper progress: “When the car was invented 130 years ago, no speed limit existed because it hadn’t been necessary for horse carriages.” The legal framework needs to evolve together with the technology, he demanded.

AT SXSW, almost everyone seems open to driverless cars. (Photo: Daimler)

In Austin, no one questioned that autonomous driving will prevail – people only debated about the where and how. Daimler executive Stark predicted that urban mobility providers like Car2Go will be the first to use the technology. According to him, city traffic is easier to master due to better connectivity and more detailed mapping. Again, one must think of this in the context of the aftermath of the Uber crash (that happened after SXSW) where experts are somewhat baffled as to why the technology failed in “good” conditions. Is it really easier?

This aside, Stark is convinced that initially, private customers won’t be able to afford such vehicles. Consumer advisor David Strickland tends to disagree. He expects the first level 4 and 5 vehicles to drive on highways because the traffic situation is less complex while the benefit is greater.

Be it highway or urban centers – in Austin they are so convinced of self-driving cars that they are already envisioning flying cabs without pilots. “The autonomous car is not our craziest idea,” said Stark while showing images of Volocopter, a self-flying electric helicopter company Daimler bought into last year. “After the robocab on the ground comes the autonomous drone.” Stark is convinced that the future has already begun: “We have already completed our first test flights.”

Still, you didn’t only hear euphoric opinions at SXSW. Even in the Daimler realm, some people would love to slow down the development. One of them is Jens Wohltorf, CEO of limousine service Blacklane, which is partly owned by Daimler. Chauffeurs will always be necessary, he predicts, even if robocabs will roam our streets soon: “Who else will open the door for our customers and stow their luggage?”

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