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Reinventing the wheel

February 2, 2011

Many in the automotive sector are looking ahead with at least a hint of trepidation, even as the car celebrates a landmark birthday. Deutsche Welle asked Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche for his take on the industry's future.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche
Daimler's CEO thinks the car is a victim of its own successImage: DW-TV

The automotive industry is facing major challenges on its 125th birthday. The car of the future is expected to be carbon-neutral, and may eventually need to function without burning fossil fuels. That would mean that the bedrock of the present-day car, the internal combustion engine, could soon become a fossil in its own right.

Deutsche Welle asked the CEO of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, about the short-term and long-term future of an industry that may be facing a major revamp.

DW: Dieter Zetsche, a lot has changed during the car's 125 year history. What is it that drives the industry to keep coming up with new ideas?

Dieter Zetsche: The automobile's only real problem is its incredible success, which has led to it selling in such great numbers. That has triggered exponential increases in the emissions generated and the space occupied. Overcoming our dependence on fossil fuels and the resultant carbon emissions are the biggest challenges we face today. But we are making great strides in these areas, and it won't be long before we see carbon-neutral vehicles on the roads.

Car ownership is expensive. The automotive sector really struggled in the recent recession. But now you seem to have turned a corner. Why is that?

Well, the economy has recovered, and people still sincerely want to drive cars. Car ownership is on the rise once again in industrialized countries, and the incredible economic progress in developing countries means more and more people want vehicles of their own. It's this progress that best explains the swift recovery of the automotive industry in general.

At Daimler, you are looking for alternatives to the internal combustion engine, just like your competitors. Which avenues seem most promising?

There's no single solution that fulfils all the desired criteria. That's why we're staying up to speed in almost every area of research. Electric cars are dominating the agenda. The energy for these cars is often stored in batteries. Alternatively, the vehicles can be electrically powered by a fuel cell, in which case the energy comes from hydrogen that you pump into your car, a little like petrol nowadays.

So, it's not yet entirely clear where the future lies. Nowadays, some critics say that when it comes to alternative fuel sources and electric motoring, German carmakers - including Daimler - are a little behind the curve. How would you explain that?

I'd point out how such criticism is occasionally unjustified - as is the case here. Three years ago we put 100 electric Smart cars onto the streets of Berlin. We were practically the first manufacturer to do such a thing. Now we're operating the third generation electric Smarts. We are also currently producing 200 cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. That means we are among the frontrunners as the industry seeks to reinvent the automobile.

But the industry remains in something of a test-phase, so to speak; these changes are by no means established. And now other competitors like electricity providers are looking to join the fray. Do you think that changes like this will help to bring electric motoring into the mainstream?

It's certainly a good thing. We need larger alliances now, and different alliances to those that worked in the past. We must establish the necessary infrastructure, and discuss numerous issues, for instance how to standardize power sockets to fit the cars. Considering these requirements, these partnerships are definitely positive.

Interview: Monika Jones (msh)
Editor: Sam Edmonds