Just when we thought we had a handle on Bluetooth and Apple Carplay, along comes a bunch of new automotive technologies to keep us on the backfoot.
Trying to predict what the car of the future will look like has been a rich vein of speculation for pundits over the decades.
From rocket propulsion to flying cars, automotive crystal ball gazers have been seeking to predict the future on four wheels since soon after Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen debuted.
Most have got it wildly wrong, of course, because while the automotive industry has been characterised by many remarkable innovations over its 130-plus-year journey, for the most part the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine powering a carriage made of steel and glass has remained.
Now, with the convergence of electric powertrains and remarkable leaps in computing power, data generation and storage, the car as we know it is set to undergo some of the most fundamental changes in its history.
In a February 2019 white paper titled Mobility’s Second Great Inflection Point, renowned US consulting firm McKinsey & Co. stated just as “radically new dynamics in the early 20th century transformed cars and, in turn, the world … the next great inflection point is upon us, auguring changes no less profound.”
To better understand what that might look like, we met with Mercedes-Benz Australia’s Senior Manager of Product Marketing, Strategy and CASE implementation, Andre Dutkowski.
Mr Dutkowski readily admits his crystal ball is no better calibrated than anyone else’s but he does have the benefit of working for one of the world’s leading luxury car makers, which has mapped out its vision for the future in a strategy document titled Ambition 2039.
The document describes four megatrends which Mercedes-Benz sees as shaping the future and these are reflected in the CASE acronym in Mr Dutkowski’s title, which stands for Connected, Autonomous, Shared Services and Electric.
Megatrends are sustained macro-economic forces happening at a global scale and it’s the convergence of electric vehicle powertrains and autonomous driving technology that will change the car as we know it in unprecedented ways, Mr Dutkowski said.
“I guess it’s safe to say that the future of mobility will be electric and that is super exciting,” he said.
“All OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) are now moving over to electric cars.”
In the case of Mercedes-Benz that means the all-electric EQC 400, which was released in Australia last year as the brand’s first all-electric model.
Mr Dutkowski said the goal was to roll out an additional six fully electric EQ models between now and 2025 and that by 2030 about 50 percent of all Mercedes-Benz vehicles sold would be electric.
The EQC 400 joins a fleet of established internal-combustion-powered Mercedes models, as well as models fitted with the company’s EQ Boost mild hybrid technology, and others with its EQ Power plug-in hybrid technology.
But as Mr Dutkowski explained: “By 2039 we want to exclusively offer either electric vehicles, hydrogen powered vehicles, and/or plug-in hybrid vehicles.
“That is obviously a huge paradigm shift for the inventor of the automobile. We’ve been doing internal combustion engine cars for the last 130 years and in less than 20 years we now want to move away from that,” he said.
But what about the “A” for “Autonomous” in Mr Dutkowski’s title? Surely that presents even more challenges than the already daunting task of convincing standoffish Australians to embrace electric vehicles.
“Five years ago, many OEMs were bragging about the fact that by 2020 they’d have a fully autonomous, certified car in the market,” Mr Dutkowski said.
“But it simply took all of us a bit longer to really make this technology bulletproof and safe.
“I guess it’s fair to say that it took the industry a bit longer to get from 98 percent to 100 percent than we all thought it would.
“But obviously when it comes to safety, we cannot compromise anything, or make short cuts, and we need to get the technology right.
“But it will be coming and when we talk about motoring in 25 years’ time, we will be driving autonomous vehicles.”
One model that showcases these and other new technologies to impressive effect is the Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, or ESF 2019.
Based on a current generation GLE SUV, the ESF 2019 features a plug-in hybrid-electric drivetrain and is equipped for Level 4 autonomous driving, which means the vehicle can drive itself without human interaction, although a human still has the option to manually override it.
The ESF 2019 bristles with advanced safety technologies including a steering wheel and pedal cluster that automatically retract when autonomous driving mode is enabled, and sensors that can detect an impending rear-end collision and accelerate the car to take evasive action.
But perhaps most intriguing is the ESF 2019’s cooperative communication system, which enables it to communicate with other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Using animation projected onto its grille and rear screen, it can convey information on road and traffic hazards to other road user while the lights on its roof can signify danger to other motorists or acknowledge that it has seen pedestrians when in autonomous mode.
Charting the direction for Mercedes-Benz’s journey into the future is a corporate strategy document titled Ambition 2039, which Andre Dutkowski describes as the playbook that will direct every decision the company will make over the next two decades.
“Ambition 2039 aims for the complete de-carbonisation of our products and our production,” Mr Dutkowski said.
“By 2039 we want to be 100 percent carbon-free in terms of production and product.”
An example of this is Factory 56 in Stuttgart, the first of a new breed of plants that will help facilitate the transition to carbon-free manufacturing.
“This is the first completely carbon-free factory in the world,” Mr Dutkowski said.
“By 2022 we want to make this a blueprint across all the European plants of Mercedes-Benz, and between 2022 and 2029 this will be the blueprint for all our factories across the globe.”
These clean-green car factories will rely on renewable energy sources such as hydro and solar power, while at the same time increasing the share of recycled materials from today’s 15 to an impressive 85 percent.