Complex Made Simple

A futurist looks at where cars are going

Eric Larsen heads research in society and technology at Mercedes-Benz Research and Development in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Larsen, 53, who joined the carmaker in 1995, wrote his thesis for a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Washington on the failure of innovation in the Communist world. Now he thinks about how Mercedes can sustain innovation as technology transforms luxury cars.

Mercedes has taken steps toward robotic cars, with built-in computers and sensors that assist human drivers with things like navigation, route planning and “anticipatory driving,” which looks at the topography of the road ahead to improve the battery performance in hybrid vehicles. The company has also tested driverless trucks on Germany’s autobahns. Mr. Larsen recently talked about his work in an interview, which was condensed and edited.

How do you think about cars?

The most fundamental thing is that this is still a big market for family values. The other thing is that smartphones and lots of wireless connectivity changed everything. Lots of other technologies — like big data, autonomous driving — and new business models are possible because of connectivity. It’s why almost all the carmakers now have offices in the Silicon Valley.

What are the implications of those two trends?

Young people have had their adulthood postponed by the recession, but most of them will still get married and move to the suburbs. They want children, and they want home-based lives. They like to have space around them. They fill up a car with kids, dogs and stuff from big-box supply stores. That means people will still want big cars.

What has changed inside the car itself?

Screens have become more important. Will a driver’s screen get lots of upgrades like a phone app? If you have a five-year-old car now, people know it by looking at the sound system and the screen. Leased vehicles may be refurbished more often, as dealers look to make them seem newer. Cars may become more modular that way, and there won’t be model years in American cars the way there were.

There is more awareness in the controls. You can’t input long addresses into a navigational system while you’re driving. When a car knows it is at rest, it may allow you to put the seat back further, letting you work, sleep or watch TV from the driver’s seat.

But there’s also a tightrope of personalization and privacy. Companies can know how fast you drive, how tight you corner. We’ve already seen start-ups that tell how fast you’re driving and how you are braking by using the sensors in your phone. It can be a capability in the car itself. As you get into “pay as you drive” car businesses, that will become an issue. There are legal points that have to be worked out.

What about electric cars?

This part of the model isn’t broken for most car owners. Fracking has been a strong influence, keeping gas prices low. Internal combustion engines are getting better mileage. Natural gas is cleaner burning and is easier to install from a technology point of view.

Refueling with gasoline is five minutes, once a week. People have anxiety around running out of fuel with electric cars. Tesla is building out a network of fast charging stations. Cities are doing it too, with charging stations at a few spots in city garages. But if electric cars become popular, are they really going to put a charger in every space in the garage?.

How do you sell luxury cars now?

In the industrial age you got luxury based on income and showing off. Today it’s about wealth, status and projecting personal values. Knowing things, caring about certain things, is a status symbol. That is getting a lot harder to do, because word gets around.

Wealthy people want to show that they care about saving the world. The Prius was generally bought by people who could afford a more expensive car. Tesla put that in an even sexier package — you get a high-performance car and it’s green.

One of the challenges is that luxury wants to be heavy, with better seats, more safety features, more stuff in the car. Authenticity matters too. Wealthy people want things that are natural and handmade.

In our AMG model we have an idea of “One man, one engine,” with the name of the person who made the engine on it. Leather will never go out of shoes or handbags, and probably not cars.

There’s a constant back-and-forth. It’s hard to be rich without contradicting yourself.

© The New York Times 2015