Mercedes to bring self-driving to market faster than rivals

But could robot cars cripple car makers?

Mercedes has a vision for self-driving cars, but is is Utopia or Dystopia?

Mercedes has a vision for self-driving cars, but is is Utopia or Dystopia?


Mercedes-Benz is betting big on automated driving technology as it seeks a USP to give it an edge over rivals BMW and Audi. According to Bloomberg News, the next E-Class saloon, which is due to go on sale next March, will feature enough self-driving technology that it will effectively be an autonomous car on the motorway.

“Innovations in this area are coming thick and fast,” Thomas Weber, Daimler’s head of development, said. “While we don’t want to feed wrong expectations such as sleeping in the car, autonomous driving is set to become a reality much more quickly than the public thinks.”

Mercedes acknowledges though that it will have to overcome legislation at an EU and national level if the option of self-driving is going to take off. Currently, while it would be legal to allow your car to drive itself, you would have to be monitoring it constantly, able to take control at a second’s notice and certainly not be allowed to sit there and check your email or read a book. The German giant has said that if legislation cannot be changed, then automated motoring will be a “hard sell.”

But cars that can drive themselves could be something of a death-knell for the motor industry, or at least the beginning of a dramatic down-sizing of production and sales. According to research undertaken by Barclay’s PLC, self-driving cars could chop American car production by almost half if popular automated services such as Google’s proposed robot car become popular.

Large-volume automakers “would need to shrink dramatically to survive,” said Brian Johnson, the author of the Barclay’s report. “GM and Ford would need to reduce North American production by up to 68 percent and 58 percent, respectively. While extreme, a historical precedent exists,” he wrote. “Horses once filled the many roles that cars fill today, but as the automobile came along, the population of horses dropped sharply.”

The key is that shared, driverless cars would fill a significant part of the market which currently has to own a car simply to get around. Barclays estimates that as many as 40 per cent of current US car buyers would not replace their current cars and simply move over to a Google-style service.

“While the Detroit Three will still have pickups and vans (their most profitable segments), they will be challenged in the markets for family autonomous vehicles and shared vehicles” said Johnson. “We see this as a further lid on the prospects for traditional, mass-market automakers.”

The situation in Europe is less clear in this respect – by and large, Europe’s public transport systems are better-integrated than those in the US, and a smaller proportion of current car owners would therefore make the switch. But such apocalyptic predictions may well put a brake on how keen car makers are to promote robotic driving.