MUNICH -- Three decades ago, an experimental Mercedes-Benz van managed to steer, brake and accelerate on its own. But after the technology was refined enough to put an S-class sedan through its paces on a highway around Paris in 1994, it was largely set aside as commercially unviable.
Now, the prospect of autonomous vehicles is threatening to upend the auto industry, and instead of an enviable head start, Mercedes is just part of the pack in the race to roll out self-driving cars. That's a thorn in the side for Dieter Zetsche, head of the storied brand and CEO of parent Daimler AG.
Zetsche, who started in the industrial giant's research division in 1976, is spurring Daimler to regain that edge. In 2015, he unveiled the futuristic self-driving F 015 concept car and prodded developers by moving forward targets for introducing the technology several times in recent years, he said in an interview. Positioning Mercedes for the self-driving era could prove a crucial last act for the 64-year-old Zetsche, whose contract runs until 2019.
"It's very, very important to be one of the first with self-driving cars, because the technology is threatening to overturn carmakers' core business," said Jan Burgard, the head of Beryll Strategy Advisors, a Munich-based automotive consulting firm. "To be among the first means to be in a much better position to assess the threat, and in particular shape future development."