Mercedes-Benz USA CEO: Automakers Must Also Be Tech Companies to Make It

January 9, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Cars in 2019 are about so much more than transporting passengers from point A to B. That's why luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz chose to sit out the Detroit Auto Show, and debut its second-generation CLA Coupe at CES instead.

"Today's cars aren't just about metal and an engine anymore, what really the customer expects and what we are really proud of is the consumer electronics interface in the car," Dietmar Exler, president and CEO at Mercedes-Benz USA, told Cheddar from the Las Vegas convention Wednesday.

The consumer electronics interface to which Exler is referring is the MBUX Interior Assist, an artificial intelligence-powered voice tool that can help the driver or passenger with information about navigation, weather and road conditions.

Exler said the car on display at CES could even officiate a Vegas-style shotgun wedding.

"Think about it as an Alexa kind of tool that works fully ー voice-controlled artificial intelligence that helps you navigate the car, gives you information about where you drive," he said. "Really this electronics piece prompted us to bring that car and show it here in Las Vegas."

The automaker's decision to show in Vegas, rather than Detroit, represents a broader industry shift. Detroit's event is a more traditional auto show and features more conventional automakers, Exler said. Carmakers like Mercedes' parent company Daimler AG don't just want to be thought of as car makers anymore ー they want to be considered technology companies.

"That is the trend where it's going and that is exactly what is required to be successful long term," Exler said.

He likened the transformation of the car to the cellphone's transition from analog to smartphone.

"Remember some 10 years ago we had flip phones? Now when somebody buys a smartphone today, do you think they worry one bit about the fact that they can make a phone call with the phone? That's not what it is about, it's about all the technology ー that's really the differentiator that's in the phone," Exler said.

"In our mind going forward, mobility will not just about the fact that I can get from A to B ... It will be about all the electronic additional features in the car that somebody offers to you as a customer," he said.

Certainly, autonomy is on the bleeding edge of mobility innovation, but Exler said Mercedes is in no rush to bring a fully autonomous vehicle or system to market. Although Exler said Mercedes is "very well-positioned" and "very advanced," he said the company would hold off on releasing anything resembling full autonomy until the technology is safer.

"A thing that is 98, 99 percent safe ー it just doesn't work for Mercedes. We will only come out with technology that is 100 percent safe for the customer," he added.

For now, Exler said most of what Mercedes has to offer in autonomous tech is driver assistance systems, but the company is working behind the scenes to eventually deliver "the fully autonomous experience."

However, he added, that will "still take a little bit."

For full interview click here.