COMMENT: Mercedes' company culture is to blame for electronics problems

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

Juergen Hubbert and his engineers at DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz passenger car group have ambitious goals. Their products in the future will be faultless. Their motto is "zero error."

Their first step toward preventing breakdowns was to reduce significantly the number of electronic functions in the vehicles.

At the group's recent innovations symposium, Stephan Wolfsried, who is responsible for electronic engineering at the group, announced proudly that more than 600 features had been removed from the automobiles.

He said they were functions that no one really needed, and therefore people would barely notice their absence.

Why then, one wonders, has so much money been spent developing those features? And why were they sold to customers at such expense?

This is not the only area in which cuts have been made. Hubbert announced last September that the Sensotronic Brake Control system will be withdrawn gradually.

At the time, the Mercedes boss said it was because of costs. Now it has emerged that the withdrawal of the system might also be for technical reasons.

Because of possible faults in the system, Mercedes recalled 680,000 E class and SL models worldwide.

In 1,300 cases the system suddenly switched to the emergency operation mode, which disabled brake assistance as well as the antilock brakes and the electronic stability program.

Some of the automobiles' owners want to use the opportunity to have their cars' Command system checked. The navigation and telephone operating functions interfere with each other.

Such technical troubles and recall campaigns are not good for the premium brand's image. Nor are they a sign of the "technology leadership" that Hubbert has been claiming for Germany's best-known brand for many years.

Of course, other automakers also have quality problems. The Volkswagen group recently had to recall a similar number of cars because of possible defects involving some vehicles' front axle.

But that is no excuse for Mercedes-Benz. Both the brand's own standards and the customers' demands on the traditional brand, which stands for German engineering more than any other brand, are too high.

It seems that the Stuttgart automaker has been resting on its laurels too long. Quality assurance had been delegated to suppliers, and the number of incoming quality controls at the manufacturer's plants had been reduced.

The model range, on the other hand, had been extended further and further under a lot of time pressure. The quality management could not keep up with the brand's development.

The company culture, which called every doubt about the brand's quality a sacrilege, is also to blame.

Looking back on Hubbert's era, one sees a contradictory picture.

On the one hand there are fascinating cars, record sales and Mercedes' development into a volume brand represented in all important markets.

On the other hand there are quality problems and loss of image, which could pose many problems for Hubbert's successor.

Mercedes definitely is no case for rehabilitation, but there is definitely a need for optimization and restructuring.

Wolfgang Bernhard knew that. His mistake was to draw up a plan of action before taking over the lead at Mercedes-Benz.

Let's hope that his successor will be just as decisive but will possess more diplomatic skills.

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