Mercedes-Benz Vans enjoyed a record global sales year after its volume rose 12 percent last year to 401,000 vehicles, largely because of strong demand for the Vito minivan, sold in the U.S. as the Metris.
But the base of the Daimler division's strength comes from the large van segment, where the recently updated Sprinter accounts for every second vehicle it sells. Investments in the next-generation Sprinter hurt profitability last year. But Volker Mornhinweg, 58, Daimler executive vice president in charge of Mercedes-Benz Vans, said the division still achieved its strategic target of a 9 percent operating margin. He discussed the division's outlook with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Christiaan Hetzner.
Q: Mercedes-Benz Vans just launched the new Sprinter large delivery van. What expectations does the company have for the Sprinter?
A:We forecast a significant increase in volume for this year compared with last year. That being said, we do not provide future sales targets for the business or for individual models such as the Sprinter. We did, however, achieve a new record last year with more than 200,000 Sprinters sold, despite it being in the final year of its life cycle.
How is globalization coming?
Our Sprinter is already a global model. We build it from scratch locally in several factories on different continents to reduce the delivery time to customers. The Vito is now on a similar level. In the U.S., it is assembled from kits in South Carolina, and sold under the Mercedes-Benz name as the Metris. We consider ourselves as the only truly worldwide operating [light commercial vehicle] manufacturer.
How has the light commercial vehicle business changed?
In the past, we thought purely in terms of conventional vehicle attributes: length, width, height and payload. Today, it no longer suffices simply to offer a range of different vans for various requirements. The customer wants to optimize his entire value chain now. And we have to think of ourselves as an integrated solutions provider.
What did Mercedes-Benz Vans do?
About two years ago we began changing our approach from a straightforward vehicle manufacturer to a provider of holistic end-to-end solutions tailored to the individual transport needs of our various customer groups. The new Sprinter is the first core product to reflect this.
What does this mean?
Take the example of a courier. How can we help a customer be more efficient starting from the moment they start loading packages up the ramp to the moment the driver returns after his route? Digitalization offers all sorts of possibilities to improve his profitability in the future.
How does that work?
Our Vision Van concept showcased a fully automated cargo area that can transmit information in real time about the number of packages still in the hold. Transporting perishable goods such as groceries or sensitive pharmaceuticals can be better guaranteed by permanently measuring the temperature inside the vehicle. Another example comes from the connectivity solutions that the new Sprinter offers.
Daimler is working with Robert Bosch to develop autonomous vehicles. With people movers such as the V class, Mercedes-Benz Vans would seem ideally placed for self-driving mobility services.
Last year we founded ViaVan — a joint venture with the U.S.-based startup Via — to bring on-demand ride-sharing from the U.S. to Europe. The service is live in Amsterdam and London. Berlin will follow soon. Several customers signal through a smartphone app where they need to go. The algorithm plots the most intelligent route and a shuttle picks them up and drops them off at virtual bus stops — all for a price that lies between public transport and a taxi. This is a solution that we are already offering today. Autonomous driving will open new business opportunities.
So Daimler develops the autonomous driving software and packs it into a Mercedes V class. Via then acts as a dispatcher, and the whole thing is operated by Daimler Mobility Services?
You could imagine something along those lines.
What are Mercedes-Benz Vans' plans for battery-powered vans?
We will launch the eVito in the second half. The eSprinter comes next year. An electric Citan will come later. Our business is mostly commercial, so that is where our initial focus lies.