Interview with Mercedes Board Member for Development Schäfer
“Bringing the fuel cell back from the truck to the passenger car”.
Mr Schäfer, Mercedes and Geely want to jointly develop the next generation of four-cylinder combustion engines. In this context, engine production in Untertürkheim will be discontinued in the medium term. How can you explain this to your employees?
In essence, this is about the transformation of the company. The question of how this is to be done has been on our minds for a long time. We already started transforming the plants when I was in charge of production. That was in 2014, which is why we now have Factory 56 in Sindelfingen and why electric vehicles are coming off the production lines in many plants, because we started early. Every German assembly plant, for example, will produce an electric vehicle in the future: Bremen, for example, will produce the EQC, Sindelfingen the EQS, and Raststatt the EQA. The biggest transformation, however, is in the powertrain area. In a historically grown plant like Untertürkheim with more than 18,000 employees, this is an enormous task. Here, too, we started years ago, and one of a total of two battery factories is now starting work. In addition, there is a commitment to manufacture the electric powertrain there in the future. But these steps also require a physical transformation. We have to create space, and that involves many thousands of square metres. So the classic combustion engine components are gradually moving out, and electric components are moving in. I can understand that this is an emotional discussion among the staff. However, the step is unavoidable because we are in a global competition for this technology, and also for cell technology. We have a good basis because we were the first to develop and manufacture cells ourselves, in Kamenz, Germany. We have therefore also brought these teams and thus the competence to Stuttgart.
Can you now please comment on the cooperation with Geely?
With pleasure. Of course, this is also about economies of scale. We have a large variety of combustion engines, currently almost 20 different ones, to serve the whole range from compact vehicles to Sprinters. We have to shrink and at the same time combine our engineering competence with the value added in China and the additional volume of Geely and Volvo in global competition with the possibilities of a partner.
There is currently the impression that car manufacturers are increasingly going their own way with the electric motor. Is there again a threat of excessive complexity, as you just described with the combustion engine?
Many years ago, the industry was of the opinion that the electric motor could simply be taken off the shelf of a supplier. We were among the few who built our own motor, but we were also of this opinion. In the meantime, we have learned a lot, because the possibilities of an electric motor in terms of increased efficiency, which is reflected in battery size and range and thus costs, should not be underestimated. Every percent counts. So as a vehicle manufacturer, you have to know the interplay of motor, battery and power electronics inside out. We certainly have to generate a scalable modular system, but by no means end up with 20 different electric motors and batteries. And of course the electric motor plays a decisive role in consumption, i.e. kilowatt hours per 100 kilometres, as well as in the noise level of a vehicle.
And when it comes to combustion engines, what can Geely possibly do better than the previous cooperation partner Renault/Nissan?
First of all, the development sovereignty lies with Mercedes. But if you look at the production capacity in the Chinese plants, you are impressed by their sheer size. In addition, there is now a very balanced relationship between electromobility and electrified combustion engine technology, especially after the decline in government support for e-mobility in China. In this process, Geely has built one of the most modern factories for combustion engines together with high-tech test benches – which, by the way, come from Germany. So it’s all about opening up the Chinese market with an experienced partner. The whole thing was preceded by a concept competition, which meant that we now have the development authority for a Lambda 1 engine. The previous cooperation was quite successful, however, as it was primarily concerned with an engine segment that we did not cover at the time and at the same time underestimated the demand.
The next smart fortwo is also being developed together with Geely. What will it look like?
We wanted to continue to build this brand and give it a future, which we were only able to do to a limited extent in the previous constellation. Here, too, Geely will help us with its experience and distribution network in China to make a much larger market accessible. The design department in Sindelfingen is currently working tirelessly on a highly emotional interpretation of the Smart idea for the future.
You just mentioned the Lambda 1 combustors. What technology do the engines need to achieve this map, which is important for Euro7?
We will have to really go the extra mile in order to achieve sufficient power to meet our requirements on the one hand and to comply with the NVH requirements (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) on the other. The effort required to operate the engine in the Lambda 1 map is immense. But I can already reveal that we will offer a technological highlight.
In this context, do you have to equip the combustion engine with more electric power?
Electrification in general is not just a must. It is a very conscious path that we are choosing and that we believe our customers will appreciate. “Ambition 2039” is indeed a progressive approach as far as achieving the fleet targets is concerned.
How can electrified Mercedes models differentiate themselves from the competition?
The differentiation already starts when you get in, when you sink into the cushions and close the door, the haptic experience. Yes, the role of the drive will be different, but the overall experience will always offer a Mercedes standard. Today we live in a combustion engine world and can imagine little else. That will look very different in ten years’ time. But even today the question arises: does the customer buy a Mercedes solely because of the drive? Hardly ever. Sure, that’s more often the case with AMG. That’s why we will also offer an AMG-appropriate package for electrification. In terms of the overall experience, however, the priorities will shift somewhat.
In our opinion, the brand’s first purely electric mass-produced vehicle, the EQC, falls short of Mercedes’ aspirations, especially in terms of driving comfort and sovereignty. Did this model have to come onto the market particularly quickly?
The performance profile of every vehicle is our customer promise, that applies regardless of the drive, that must not change in the core characteristics. The EQC offers a unique level of noise and ride comfort in the segment, the highest level of safety, connectivity and assistance systems.
So was the EQC a slip-up?
No, the EQC is a true Mercedes and an optimal product for the transition from the combustion engine to the electric world. It will continue to be a core feature to offer a unique driving experience with precise steering and brake tuning – even in the electric age.
The EQC builds on the GLC, then came the purely electric EVA2 architecture, soon the mixed architecture Electric First. Why is this zigzag course necessary?
In retrospect, one is always wiser, i.e. timing is important. In 2007, we were early with the electric smart, sometimes even too early, as with the fuel cell, which we brought forward together with our partner at great expense. We were pioneers there. We built our own electric motors early on. Yes, perhaps we were not courageous enough or sometimes too conservative because of the negative experiences we had due to our early appearance on the market. Electric First is a tough break, we are starting from scratch, but you have to do that to build the ultimate electric car. But this realisation is also growing as you build a series of electric cars.
With the EQS – here the show car – the next chapter of e-mobility begins for Mercedes. Planned range: over 700 kilometres.
What approach is Mercedes taking with cell chemistry? Will it vary in future depending on the price and performance class of the respective model?
First of all, it depends on the question: What does the customer need? They want range, fast charging and a long service life. The cell makes a decisive contribution to this. That’s why our new electric architecture will also enable a range of 700 kilometres from 2021, which is only possible through chemistry, through a high energy density. The next generation is already being developed in the laboratories in Untertürkheim. As things stand today, it will be a lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese cell with a high proportion of silicon as the anodic material. In this way, we are aiming for energy densities of > 800 watt hours per litre. At the same time, we maintain the cycle stability at a high level of more than 1200 cycles. But lithium iron phosphate batteries are also developing further and represent a favourable alternative for vehicles with small batteries.