Monday, June 14

The Return of Mercedes-Benz

By: Anton Kozyrev

Throughout the 20th century, Mercedes-Benz established itself as a principal leader in the automotive industry — excelling in various developments and innovations. It began, of course, with Carl Benz’s Patent No. 37435 for a “three-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle with a rear-mounted single-cylinder engine.” This patent from 1886 serves as a “birth certificate” of sorts of the modern-day, gas-powered automobile. Many other innovations followed suit in following years, from the honeycomb radiator in 1901 and the Antilock Braking System (ABS) in 1978. With this brand ethic and work mentality of striving for continual improvement and development, Mercedes-Benz was able to thoroughly position itself as a leader of its respective industry. 

However, Mercedes-Benz — and its parent company Daimler — have allowed various performance and quality standards to drop within the past decades, and a general lack of exciting innovation has posed a threat to the industry leader. In fact, in the late 1990s, J.D. Power quality rankings shockingly delivered a verdict that the quality of Mercedes-Benz vehicles was subpar and not up to standards. The company did, of course, do its best to address these concerns, and many of these issues were resolved in the 2000s. However, the issue of a lack of innovation remains, and it is precisely this that indicates a real danger for Mercedes-Benz. As a brand that was formed and has been built upon the very premise of intellectual exploration and innovative excellence, it is anathema to Mercedes-Benz’s brand culture to remain slow and conservative in its technological development.

But with new, unconventional rivals, this is precisely what awaits Mercedes-Benz. With the arrival of Tesla Motors in the automotive industry and an increasing notion that electric vehicles are the transport of the future, it comes as little surprise that today’s aspirational car, for many younger buyers, is a Tesla automobile — whereas ten years ago, it would likely have been Mercedes-Benz. If the company is to rescue its identity, it must reclaim its position in the industry as “the innovator.” Yes, Mercedes has continued to roll out innovative features such as its PRE-SAFE Sound system, in which the vehicle plays a specific noise through the speakers in the seconds before a crash occurs in order to better protect the ears from noise damage during the accident. However, these features aren’t enough to establish Mercedes-Benz as the innovator of the future.

Fortunately for Daimler, Mercedes-Benz appears to be taking steps to remediate this. While the brand has remained relatively cautious concerning entry into the EV market, it appears to be overcoming this trepidation with the announcement and release of several key all-electric vehicles, such as the new Mercedes-Benz EQS. This new flagship vehicle will occupy what is likely to be a similar position to the conventional flagship S-class, the major difference being that the former seems poised to lead an EV future for Mercedes’ lineup. The critical point to consider and take note of when considering the EQS is the fact that it isn’t merely another luxury sedan produced by Mercedes with an electric motor. It appears to truly be a step in a new direction for the company, with an eye to the future. Perhaps this is no better exemplified than by its prominent 56-inch “Hyperscreen” display. Many will recall that one of the biggest talking points of the Tesla Model S at its release in 2012 was its large — even by today’s standards — screen of 17 inches. This was a concept that, nine years ago, seemed laughably absurd. Some had reservations about the feasibility of replacing physical-touch buttons with screen icons. And yet, it proved to be a massive gamble that worked for Tesla and enabled the company to be seen as a new, innovative force in its industry. Now, Mercedes-Benz appears to be trying to beat Tesla at its own game with its Hyperscreen display. Intriguingly, the MBUX infotainment interface of the Hyperscreen employs a so-called “zero layer interface,” in which artificial intelligence adapts to its driver’s habits and actions and provides necessary applications at the driver’s fingertips — resulting in no need for menu navigation and selection.

A tale of Mercedes-Benz’s return to a leading position in the luxury car industry cannot be fully contextualized, however, without considering present-day trends in the automotive industry as a whole. In recent years, car buyers have been transitioning from sedans to larger vehicles, namely SUVs and crossovers. This is an area in which Mercedes will need to apply additional efforts in order to build an EV foothold, as the EQS is only a sedan. Yes, Mercedes has released its upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQB, but the problem remains that it is heavily based on the existing, conventionally-powered GLB-class SUV. This does not provide the distinctive EV identity that the EQS will benefit so heavily from. In order to maximize a fighting chance against EV newcomers to the automotive industry, Mercedes-Benz will need to apply its longstanding, sedan-based strategies to the SUV market.

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