Insightful observation alert: All chief executives of global automakers are smart. They have more dots and can connect them faster. But on occasions when I've interviewed Källenius or been part of roundtables with him, he struck me as a different category of CEO or CEO-in-waiting. He comes across like one of those Silicon Valley mind-benders — not in an oddball Elon Musk way, but like those superbly clued-up men and women who know their stuff because they invented their stuff.
Yet he's not an engineer. Källenius shifted from head of sales and marketing at the beginning of 2017 to lead Daimler product development. Shortly after the switch, I had my first crack at him at the Detroit auto show. I started by asking what had driven the industry's sudden surge toward autonomous vehicles, and for some reason his answer surprised me.
"I remember hearing a lot about artificial intelligence 20 to 25 years ago," he said. "Everybody talked about it. Then it went quiet for 20 years. Why did that happen? Because the original version of AI was a rule-based system. If you must write a rule on a line of code for every eventuality, you will end up with a very thick book — and you would need computing power like there is no tomorrow. That's why it stalled."
It didn't sound like a guy 17 days into his job as product chief.
Then Källenius added: "Recently, as in the last three to four years, there has been absolute breakthrough in the ... so-called deep neural network software architectures. It becomes a learning software. The software can write software and, through acting and doing, learn from that situation."
Next this trained accountant addressed the advancement of chip technology.
"Let's call them mini supercomputers that you can actually package in a car that will be able to process all this information," he said. "We couldn't have done it the old way. The technological building blocks to be able to take on this challenge are really coming together. That's why we see the acceleration. That's why we hear so much noise about this story."
Here was a finance person just up from four years in sales and marketing carrying on about artificial neural networks. Effortlessly. He did not say "um" or "ah" or use any form of conversational mitigation. He was as smooth as the west wind. He was fluent, and I don't just mean his English (so perfect you had to listen closely to hear any Swedish inflection). It was fluency in the subjects about which he spoke. There was a passionate accuracy about his knowledge.
I don't know if that means Källenius will be a good leader of this great company, but I do have a strong feeling that he represents a new era — for Daimler and for the industry.