After successful roles leading product planning, AMG and sales & marketing, Ola Kaellenius has been put in charge of one of the most important missions inside any car manufacturer, as he was recently appointed head of Research & Development (R&D).
Text by Joaquim Oliveira, photography by Mercedes

Today, at the age of 47, the Swede is seen as the most likely heir to Dieter Zetsche, when the current CEO retires at the turn of the decade. That will be a radical change, but not as much as the ones he tells us to expect from his company...

You have announced that the first EV from the EQ family will be produced in Bremen, which is where the C Class and the GLC industrialization are based in Europe. Will Bremen be the main center of competence for electrification on German soil, or will it have a similar status compared to the Rastatt, Sindelfingen and Hambach factories?

Ola Kaellenius: Our idea is to use our global production network to feed in the EQ family, so that, on the same assembly line, you can build an EV or an ICE car. That will allow us to react to the market demand accordingly. We are starting with Bremen, but the strategy will evolve to our other plants as well, as we grow the EQ portfolio.

Daimler ́s investment in battery production will allow you to produce every battery you need for EVs, PHVs and even 48 volt systems. If your partners at the alliance wish to be supplied by Accumotive, do you have enough capacity for them, as well? And would it speed up the lithium-ion production cost-reduction process?

At the moment, we are investing heavily (some 500 million euros injected) in our facilities in Kammanz – actually more than doubling the output capacity – and that will cover our Mercedes-Benz and Smart needs. But also here, as we grow electrification around the world, we will more than likely add battery production abilities to other plants around the world. At the moment, we don ́t have a battery joint-project with Renault-Nissan, but we may have one in the future, we never know.

Wireless charging is considered to be a vital technical advance to bring a new breed of consumers to buy an EV. When will it finally be available in the market, and will the EQC be the first of your vehicles to feature it?

We are looking at a sooner introduction than the EQC. Induction charging is undoubtedly a very interesting technology, and we will first have it on the new generation S Class plug-in hybrid (which will come in about a year or so).

Earlier this year, you anticipated your goal to launch more than 10 EV vehicles by 2022, rather than the initial plan, which was 2025. But has the estimated target of 15 to 25% of your total annual sales made by EVs also change, or was 2025 kept as a reference?

There was no change in the assumption that 2025 will be the year when we reach a 15 to 25% of our total annual sales made of electrified vehicles (with different degrees of electrification).

Three years ago, you yourself presented the "Me" project/concept but, for some reason, it seems that the hype has faded out, and that your customers have not adapted it as massively as you would have wished. Is this perception accurate?

On the contrary. We launched the brand "Me" three years ago and, in the fall of 2014, we started to prepare each new Mercedes-Benz to get the technical platform for "Me." And as we speak hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Mercedes-Benz users are on Mercedes "Me". The features are growing day by day, attracting more and more consumers. I show you my own "Me," and some of the new things that have just introduced are good examples of how useful it is: Parking with charging station information for plug-in (I drive a plug-in)... So we are in Stuttgart, I press "parking," it shows me all the lots with availability and charging capability and it sends the address to my sat-nav, if I select it. Then you have latest news, weather, financial services to lease a car, and it goes on and on and on.

I have no doubt about how resourceful it is. Just wondering about how your real customers were reacting and adapting to it...

You see, the thing with Mercedes "Me" is that it is far more than a connectivity car app. It is now turning into an ecosystem and, literally, the activation rate in the last six months or so is now between 80 and 90%. And as people get used to this, it will be like with iTunes or the app store: You have the system and you simply download all the stuff you need. No, it is not the main purchasing argument today. It will be much more relevant over time.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), improved sensors, better cams, better radars, greatly improved mapping software, all leading to the ultimate Level 5 autonomous car, which is said to become a reality in the near-term future. "By 2020" is the common line amongst the frontrunners, but as the date approaches, the prediction will necessarily become more precise. Why are OEMs not saying exactly when and in which car?

Let ́s look at the different steps here. If we talk about a Level 4/Level 5 robot-car that completely drives itself ... well, then the first natural commercial application of such a vehicle will be a robot-taxi. Why? Well, because the technology is expensive, for the time being, but here you may remove the cost of the driver – which is a significant cost – and you can amortize it from your investment. If we talk about this commercial application, this will come between 2020 and 2025, and it will gradually ramp up, as we reach a certain level of scale (while volumes are very scarce, we will always be dealing with prototype pricing, and that will not make a successful business case). Our ultimate goal is to sell this as an option (our S Class customer will be able to buy his own computer-chauffeur, if you will) and to be able to do that we need to significantly reduce the costs we are looking at, now and over the next 3 to 4 years. Still, I believe that, on the path between 2020 and 2025, that should be possible. And then, starting with the S Class, as the technology matures and costs are amortized, it will be cascaded down to be offered on an E Class and C Class.

Today you are in the forefront of the autonomous drive race and offering Level 2 and 3?

Yes, our improved S Class features the most advanced assistance systems in the world, by combining map data and sensor data, meaning Level 2 and, very soon, Level 3, where you have situations when the car is being driven autonomously, but with a hand-over protocol from the car to the driver, according to the legislation which is actually still in the making. In a nutshell, these technologies will be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people, at least if they are Mercedes- Benz owners/users.

In several areas, you have teamed up with other OEMs to speed up development and reduce costs. Will you also follow this cooperative path regarding autonomous drive technology?

In the map field, one made that decision a year and a half ago, and so we bought "Here," along with Audi and BMW. It was clear that HD and 3D mapping would be a crucial piece of this equation. We also teamed up with Bosch, as a very strong Tier 1 supplier, to develop the whole autonomous system, and we are open-minded towards cooperation where it makes sense.

Oct. 29, 2017 Driving photo: Daimler

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