Electric cars & Tesla: Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche looks at the future

CarAndDriver sat down with Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche and asked him about the future of the automobile business. The occasion was the recent unveiling of the Mercedes autonomous sedan code named F 0150 and the chairman was in the mood to share his views on Tesla and the future of the car business. Here is some of what he had to say:

“What about electric cars? Mainstream buyers seem to be reluctant to consider them.

And that is not truly surprising. Put simply, the customer gets a car with less range, longer refueling times, somewhat less space, and a higher price tag. Of course, there are some advantages, like the torque from zero rpm, and there are people who simply want to assume a leadership role in technology. But [customers] are focused mainly on value. As long as there are disadvantages, it will only be possible to gain customers through incentives and subsidies. I am convinced it is the technology of the future, however. The question is how long the transition will take. You can accelerate this process – or let it go its natural course.

Will the internal combustion engine become extinct?

Yes – in the long run. It will be around for a long time, especially [in regard to commercial vehicles], but passenger cars will increasingly use hybrid powertrains. And eventually even the battery-electric vehicle will sell in relevant numbers.

What role will Tesla play in the future of the automobile?

If you choose to believe the financial analysts, a very heavy role. First, I have great respect for the work Elon Musk has done so far. Whether he will succeed with his future plans remains to be seen. At least he has managed to offset the aforementioned disadvantages of the electric motor with other fun factors, and he has been more successful at it than his competitors. The big question is whether this success is scalable and whether it can be transmitted to other segments. And I don’t have an answer to that.

Will Mercedes build a Tesla fighter?

We will most certainly not build a Tesla fighter. We have our own strategy and aim to define our own products. Of course, we observe the competition and try to understand its strengths – but we act, we don’t react. And if we build a fighter, it will be directed at our established competitors, not at Tesla.”

The always affable Herr Zetsche is no doubt familiar with the children’s story about the tortoise and the hare. With his guidance, Mercedes will ignore all the noise and hype swirling around Elon Musk, Tesla Motors and electric cars. Unlike Apple and Google, who think automobile manufacturing is so last century, Zetsche seems to feel that slow and steady wins the race. When asked what his goal is for Mercedes going forward, he replied with a short, simple statement:

“Be the clear number one.”