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FUTURISTS AT MERCEDES AND ELSEWHERE

GIVEN THE automobile’s complex design cycle and regulation requirements, automakers need to understand the future. In some quarters, it’s already 2020, 2025 or beyond. In the June 10, 2015, issue of The New York Times, “A Futurist Looks at Where Cars Are Going” gives thought-provoking views of tomorrow and the next day.

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Eric Larsen, Mercedes-Benz, specializes in society, technology and the automobile. This image from The New York Times, June 10, 2015.

This particular futurist is Eric Larsen, who heads research in society and technology at Mercedes-Benz Research in Sunnyvale, California. Larsen has been at Mercedes-Benz for 20 years now, and his Ph.D. in sociology gives him insights into how we use personal mobility today—and how we’ll be using it tomorrow. I offer tidbits of his interview here, with some comments my own.

Suburbs are still important, Larsen notes. They’re where people aspire to live, with “space around them. They fill up their cars with kids, dogs and stuff from big-box supply stores.” However Larsen identifies that today’s suburban parents often both work, and “after-school activities aren’t at school anymore. Kids go 20 miles to a soccer coach or a violin teacher.”

Larsen observes, “That is a pain point for affluent parents, our customers, people who have more money than time.” Reflecting this, Mercedes U.S.A. has a business called Boost, with minivans shuttling kids around after school.

Mercedes-Benz Boost is a mobility service for customers.

Mercedes-Benz Boost is a mobility service, complete with concierges.

“They have a concierge as well as a driver,” Larsen says, “because the driver can’t leave the bus and walk the kid right to the door. A 7-year-old needs that. In this case, we’re selling a mobility service rather than a product.”

A couple years ago, I cited another service of privately shared vehicles in “Buy the Marque, Not the Car.” Briefly, I could envision Three-Pointed-Star Mobility, a deal between Mercedes and its customers.

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A Honda version of the privately shared vehicle concept, as suggested by Honda futurists back in 2001.

In general, rather than buying or leasing a specific model, the customer schedules choices of the automaker’s complete portfolio. A small battery-electric for day-to-day commuting? A hybrid SUV for a trip to the mountains? A sports car for weekend fun? All of the above.

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Each form of propulsion thrives in its own particular niche. Image suggested by Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, Lawrence D. Burns, Chris E. Borroni-Bird and William J. Mitchell, MIT, 2010.

This multiple-vehicle option also suggests coexistence of multiple technologies, as described in Burns, Borroni-Bird and Mitchell’s book, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century. I noted in “What to Drive Today and Tomorrow that each of battery-electric, hybrid and fuel-cell propulsion has its optimal niche in mobility.

Mercedes’ Larsen notes another fruitful technology, that of vehicle connectivity: “Lots of other technologies—like big data, autonomous driving—and new business models are possible because of connectivity. It’s why almost all the carmakers now have offices in Silicon Valley.”

The driverless truck is one example of this. Mercedes-Benz already has heavy-duty rigs cruising German autobahns, a perfect setting to explore the vehicles’ economic, regulatory and social implications.

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This driver can set his rig to autonomous mode for significant portions of the trip.

In a video of this development, the Mercedes big rig has a license plate reading Future Truck 2025. But then the company’s Eric Larsen has already been there, figuratively. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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