Mercedes will emphasize efficiency and autonomy over Robotaxis

While Mercedes CTO Markus Schäfer was in Silicon Valley recently to tour the company’s research and development center in Sunnyvale, he sat down for an interview with The edge to talk about his company’s plan to sell only electric cars by 2030 and his position on the issue of self-driving cars. “Very, very interesting discussions took place about potential partnerships in the future,” Schäfer said.

Mercedes Level 3 Program

As Mercedes aggressively moves forward with its transition to electric cars, it is also striving to become the first automaker to sell a passenger vehicle in the United States with Level 3 driver assistance technology. Such systems allow the driver to disregard the road or control the vehicle in very specific circumstances, usually on the highway.

Part of the reason for visiting California was to meet with state regulators and get input from the DMV, California Highway Patrol and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Tier 3 package that Mercedes is developing.

“They understand the technology, the sense of redundancy [in computing]our safety philosophy and even the way we educate customers on this level 3 system. So a very important step here, meeting with the regulators, explaining the system and preparing the application,” Shäfer said.

Mercedes Drive Pilot Level 3 features would allow drivers, under certain circumstances (on the highway and below a certain speed), to take their hands off the wheel and stop paying attention to the road. Nothing else on the market allows drivers to basically verify the driving experience, The edge said. In the United States, the closest thing to it today are hands-free systems from BMW, Ford and GM, all of which require the driver to remain attentive.

Still, potentially being the first to sell a passenger vehicle that can drive itself under certain circumstances is tantamount to a leap into the mobility space. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said self-driving Teslas could make money for their owners and at one point announced there would be one 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 self-driving companies. Argo. The AI, which was heavily backed by Ford and Volkswagen, shut down. Employees were reportedly told that some would be offered jobs at Ford or Volkswagen, while others would receive severance pay. The technology is also reportedly shared between the two companies, although it’s unclear which automaker will get what. During a third-quarter earnings call, Ford said it would focus on Level 2 and Level 3 driver assistance systems instead of vehicles that can be used as robotaxis.

For Mercedes, robotaxis are no longer a goal. “We thought that in 2016 or 2017 we could solve the robotaxi problem quite quickly,” Schäfer said. But committing to both a carpooling solution and a driver assistance solution was costly. Something had to be scrapped, and that was the robot-driven taxis.

Self-driving taxis that work all day, every day, in all weathers have been a dream of many for decades, none less than Anthony Levendowski, the bad boy of Google’s original self-driving car program. Today, he programs systems for autonomous trucks operating within industrial sites. He says that for the foreseeable future, that’s about as much complexity as any driverless vehicle will be able to handle. “You would be hard pressed to find another industry that has invested so many dollars in R&D and delivered so little. Forget about profits – what is the combined income of all the robot taxi, robot truck, robot everything companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it’s pretty much zero.

Ironically, Mercedes has been a leading source of taxis for decades in Europe and much of the rest of the world, largely due to its reputation for building tough cars that can withstand the rigors of constant use. for years. It will continue to participate in this lucrative market, but it is certainly not the automaker’s priority to enter the world of robotaxi, according to Schäfer, who does not see the advantage of a self-driving Mercedes taxi. “Would you wait five more minutes 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 worried about Mercedes’ recent rollout of electric cars.

The EQS, in sedan and SUV format, the EQE in sedan and SUV format, and the Mercedes EQB, are either already in US showrooms or will be soon. The automaker has been aggressive in its introduction of electric vehicles, with others on the way. This current generation of electric vehicles are based on a 400-volt architecture, which means they can charge at 200 kW of power while connected 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 new battery chemistry with a silicone anode, different cell types, improved packing density and new cooling concepts. The motors used in these future Mercedes electric vehicles will be modeled on the more efficient motor developed for the EQXX.

The result, he said, is that “you will see a dramatic reduction in power consumption compared to what exists today”. When asked what this efficiency means, he acknowledged that the company is aiming for a 20-30% range improvement. He thinks the extra range, coupled with improvements in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, could allow some drivers to choose a cheaper electric car with a smaller battery that will perfectly meet the driving needs of many customers.

Much of this thinking centers around the need to find price parity between electric cars and conventional cars. “Honestly, all of our calculations and intelligence showed that it would take a very, very long time to reach parity,” Schäfer said. He noted that if it wasn’t there before the supply chain issues, it’s definitely not something that’s going to happen anytime soon unless there’s a breakthrough in battery chemistry.

Mercedes plans to go all-electric five years ahead of California’s policy to no longer allow gas-powered cars to be sold by 2035. Mercedes looks set for the next stage in the evolution of the automobile, concludes The edge — a future with more efficient vehicles and a limited number of autonomous functions, but no robotaxis. That will leave that to self-drive carpoolers, if they can figure out how to make it happen.

Takeaway meals

Efficiency will become the most valued feature of electric cars, and this is where Mercedes is focusing its development of electric vehicles. It’s rather refreshing for a major manufacturer like Mercedes to put autonomy into perspective. It’s a delightful dream, but not exactly practical. Sometimes the adults in the room need to set limits on play time.

The dream of self-driving cars has always been with us, but billions have been poured into the technology over the years with very little payoff. It feels like Mercedes is intent on teaching upstarts a few lessons about the difference between theory and reality and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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