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Q&A: Hubbert says Mercedes is sorting out problems with complex electronic systems

Mercedes-Benz recently hit the headlines when it acknowledged widespread quality problems due to the increasingly complexity of its electronic components. The company is modifying its first-at-all-costs approach to technology. In an interview with Automobilwoche, Juergen Hubbert, the DaimlerChrysler board member responsible for Mercedes cars, describes the industry's attempt to increase the reliability of high-tech vehicles.

Q: Mr. Hubbert, for a long time Mercedes-Benz strived for the pole position in technology. Now it is no longer important for you to be the first automobile manufacturer to put ambitious innovations on the market. Why this change of strategy?

A: It is our aim to make our cars safe, more efficient and therefore easier to operate for our customers. That is why in future we will favor features that significantly improve safety - we continue to strive to be the leader here - comfort, exhaust emission levels and fuel consumption. At the same time, we will research how much customers really benefit from additional interesting features, such as telematics. To give one example: we will most definitely not be the first to take the Internet into the car. Customers' interest is not high enough.

Q: Do you put each innovation on the test stand before introducing it on the market?

A: We carefully examine which components are beneficial for the customer and which ones "only" satisfy engineers' interests. This specifically applies to electronics components. It is our aim to make the cars more user friendly and even more reliable than they already are.

Q: Electronics remain a weak spot. What can be done about this?

A: We have to become confident with electronic engineering. It was the same with mechanics, which didn't work immediately either. Many of the mechanical problems we dealt with a few years ago hardly ever appear today. For example, today's tires rarely burst as long as they are treated according to the operating standards. We work very hard and very intensely to master the challenges that arise due to the increased use of electronic engineering within cars. The key isn't just improving the electronic engineering of individual systems. In general, this has been done and tested sufficiently. However, the interaction between systems within a car can sometimes result in a malfunction. For example, the navigation system display might fail, or the seat heating suddenly will be switched on. These are malfunctions that only appear sporadically and the cause cannot always be identified immediately. This issue concerns the automobile industry as a whole and not just Mercedes-Benz.

Q: How can the causes be detected?

A: Currently, modern data highways often don't pinpoint the cause of a defect, despite weeks of around-the-clock tested under realistic circumstances and different driving conditions during the development stage. To detect such faults and to find out what circumstances cause them, we build interception circuits into the system that identify malfunctions within a control unit and subsequently rectify them.

Q: In cooperation with the suppliers?

A: Of course. They are important partners from moment development starts on an automobile. It is possible that we all underestimated the complexity of the interaction between electronic systems within a vehicle. That is why there are talks with IBM, Microsoft and other computer companies that manufacture control systems. However, at the moment no one is able to offer a quick solution - for the time being we have to deal with this on our own. We are prepared for that and we also know that there is no turning back regarding the use of electronic engineering. One cannot offer a pre-safe-system without a highly sensitive sensor technology. The increasingly tough emission regulations cannot be met without the use of corresponding electronic control systems.

Q: Will your customers have to put up with the problems until a solution is found?

A: No, definitely not. We are talking about isolated cases here and we are also making progress. We are convinced that the cars that leave our factories today already meet much higher standards.

Q: Change of subject: How can you prevent a mail order company from selling your cars?

A: The new block exemption regulations definitely have some advantages. They prohibit the selling of vehicles to resellers within the selective system. Therefore, any such campaigns will only be possible if someone buys the cars for a lot of money in order to sell them again cheaply for publicity reasons. The way I understand it, this has nothing to do with a serious car business. The contracts we made last year with our dealers prevent any such deals.

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