Markus Schäfer, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG, responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, Purchasing and Supplier Quality on the Future of Mobility, Digital Transformation and the sustainability strategy of the Group.
Mr. Schäfer, what do you think the VISION AVTR stands for?
Markus Schäfer: For Mercedes-Benz, the VISION AVTR is a very untypical concept vehicle. We have always looked into the future in our history, but we have never looked so far away. For me personally, however, that is precisely the appeal. The VISION AVTR is a mixture of science and creative speculation. It combines the technologically feasible with what is desirable for the future and underlines the courage and pioneering spirit of our brand. We invented the car 134 years ago and have developed it to this day with countless groundbreaking innovations. Now our company, like the entire automotive industry, is undergoing a fundamental transformation. On the one hand, we face major challenges, on the other hand, we have a unique opportunity: to create a desirable future for us and future generations. There are clearly two issues at the heart of this: customer-oriented digitalization and experienceable sustainability. The VISION AVTR combines both in an extraordinary way.
What is your approach to developing such a forward-looking vision of mobility?
Schäfer: You know, I am a “car guy” and actively shaping the mobility of tomorrow is more than just a task, but my personal drive. I would like to lead with maximum innovative strength. As a developer with passion, I am convinced: innovative, sustainable technologies are the key to success. They can and will help to shape a better future. Our cross-group research approach can be divided into three main phases: IGNITE, INVENT, IMPLEMENT. Under the keyword IGNITE, we identify social, economic and technological trends and develop them into holistic future scenarios. To this end, we work closely with external partners and scientists worldwide, as well as universities and start-ups from a wide range of industries. Under the keyword INVENT, we define network projects on strategies, concept ideas and prototypes with my global R&D team. And with IMPLEMENT, we transform innovations into concrete applications and accompany them to series production.
Keyword “Sustainable Technologies” – where do you stand specifically when it comes to sustainability?
Schäfer: As a global company, we have a great responsibility. Not only for our customers, but for the future of our planet. We are aware that there is no replacement planet that we could fall back on in an emergency. At the same time, we are convinced that individual mobility is a decisive driver for prosperity and thus for social security and individual independence. We have made it our mission to shape individual mobility without emissions. We recently officially recognized our climate protection goals through the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI). In doing so, we are ensuring that they support the path of the Paris climate agreement. Our goal is to resolve the perceived conflict between economic growth and sustainability. We can only achieve this if we consistently conserve resources and move towards a closed circular economy with full force.
What solutions does the VISION AVTR offer here?
Schäfer: Nature is our habitat and the best teacher we can learn from. It is used by bionic construction techniques, perfect material combinations and the approach of the circular economy. In nature, there is not a single solution that is not perfectly limited to the essentials, reuses resources and always recycles them. The VISION AVTR transfers this principle of a closed circular economy to our future vehicles. The concept vehicle describes a desirable future of mobility in which man, nature and technology are no longer contradictions, but are in harmony with each other. The VISION AVTR thus impressively demonstrates the vision of a “zero impact car”.
This all sounds like the distant future. Where are you currently on the subject of recycling?
Schäfer: Already today, all our Mercedes-Benz models are 85 percent recyclable and 95 percent usable. And yet there are other potentials here. For example, in terms of conserving resources, we have set ourselves the goal of reducing energy consumption and waste generation at our plants by more than 40 percent per vehicle over the next ten years. We want to save more than 30 percent per vehicle in terms of water consumption. That’s why I work tirelessly with my team of nearly 18,000 people at 28 locations in 11 countries on technological innovations and strategies. We also work closely with our partners and suppliers. Because we want to offer our customers safe and comfortable mobility and at the same time be in harmony with our environment.
You speak of digitalization as another important focus topic. How does it drive transformation?
Schäfer: Digitalization plays a very important role in all areas of the company. We are constantly expanding our expertise and creating the right conditions to continue to fulfill our role as a leader in innovation and technology. In Tel Aviv, Israel, for example, we have established an Innovation Hub that addresses the digital needs of our customers and cyber security. Our location in Sunnyvale, California, also focuses on digital topics related to mobility. Digitization opens up a whole universe of possibilities for us to create even more fascinating products for the customer. And that’s exactly what we embrace, we think of the car from inside to outside – with a software-oriented approach and cloud-based solutions. Our vehicles also receive “digital DNA” by enabling software-driven applications to permanently improve vehicles’ life cycle. This allows features to be updated or added. In addition, as the so-called “flaps” of the VISION AVTR show, we bring the car “to life”: The vehicle cooperates and communicates with its environment thanks to intelligent and interactive sensors. Clear signals create confidence by being able to see directly and intuitively how it behaves.
There is also a lot of artificial intelligence in VISION AVTR. What does AI mean to you on the way to the future?
Schäfer: AI plays a very important role! We see AI as a key technology to create a whole new experience of mobility. It is already an integral building block for us, be it in development, production, sales or after-sales. AI is also becoming increasingly important in the vehicle itself, for example by allowing vehicles to better understand their environment through deep learning, which significantly supports the production-ready development of automated driving. Another example is the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) introduced with the A-Class. This system learns the driver’s routines to make personal predictions and make recommendations. Another innovation step we are currently working on is personal AI. Among other things, we explore how our customers can teach their vehicles individual skills. This would allow them to create their own personal AI and build an individual interaction between humans and machines. Nevertheless, in everything we do, the human being with his or her abilities and individual strengths is always the focus. This applies in particular to research and development, where, from today’s point of view, there is nothing to replace human creativity and social intelligence. New ideas and responding to social needs, whether for customers or employees, are the basis for successful action and differentiation in competition. That is what I stand for – now and in the future.
Thank you for the interview.