Mercedes, the icon of automotive engineering, which takes credit for inventing the car, set up an accelerator for startups last year to identify and develop promising technologies, a departure from its past mindset when ideas from the outside were more likely to be scoffed at. The new approach appears to be helping, with the automaker moving up the rollout of 10 electric cars by three years to 2022.
Zetsche, Daimler CEO since 2006, knows what it’s like to fall behind, and to catch up. Mercedes lost the luxury-car sales lead to BMW in 2005 as Daimler’s ill-fated acquisition of Chrysler distracted management. Mercedes only reclaimed the top spot last year after an overhaul of the once-stodgy brand, with Zetsche spearheading racier new models like the GT sports car and stylish compacts such as the CLA sedan. Net income hit a record 9.9 billion euros ($11 billion) last year, and the shares have climbed more than 50 percent over his tenure.
Still, that comeback was in the traditional auto business, while keeping Mercedes up to speed in the future is a tougher challenge. Deep-pocketed technology companies like Apple Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc., which has set up mobility unit Waymo, are angling to get in.