Frankfurt - Mercedes-Benz and supplier Robert Bosch are teaming up to develop self-driving cars in an alliance aimed at accelerating the production of so-called "robo-taxis".
The pact between the world's largest premium car maker and the world's largest automotive supplier forms a powerful counterweight to new industry players, like ride-hailing firms Uber and Didi, which are also working on self-driving cars.
Technology companies and carmakers are striving to adjust to a shifting landscape in the motor industry as consumers increasingly use smartphones to locate, hail and rent vehicles, rather than going out and buying cars.
The autonomous system, with software and algorithms developed with the help of Bosch, will reportedly be ready by the beginning of next decade, Mercedes-Benz said, without disclosing when it had first envisaged the commercial launch of automated taxis, or robo-taxis.
Car comes to the driver
Mercedes will focus its efforts on the app-based car-sharing and ride-hailing sector dominated by the likes of Uber and Lyft.
"Within a specified area of town, customers will be able to order an automated shared car via their smartphone. The vehicle will then make its way autonomously to the user," Daimler said. "The idea behind it is that the vehicle should come to the driver rather than the other way round."
The cutthroat competition to launch self-driven cars has forced carmakers to shift strategy from an evolutionary toward a revolutionary approach.
Instead of evolving driver assistance systems to achieve full autonomy, carmakers are now experimenting with radical car designs combined with software-driven development – which has led to alliances with technology companies.
Before deciding to partner with Bosch, Mercedes-Benz had two engineering teams working on autonomous vehicles. One took an evolutionary approach, upgrading the capabilities of conventional vehicles, while the other team took a more radical approach to the car's design.
"Cars which do not rely on any driver input have a different architecture and sensor setup, with more radar and cameras," Christoph von Hugo, a senior Mercedes-Benz safety manager, told Reuters at a recent event to present safety systems.
Steering wheels on the way to museum
The current Mercedes E-Class can cruise (largely) without driver input on highways, keeping the distance to the car in front and staying in lane using a system which has "level 2" autonomy.
Full autonomy – known as an "eyes off, brains off" or "level 5" system – does away with even the need for a steering wheel.
"We don't want to wait until level 3 has arrived before we start with level 4/5. That will be too late," von Hugo said, adding that the prospect of new revenue streams from maintaining fleets of robo-taxis was a big motivating factor for doubling up the carmaker's R&D efforts.
Autonomous vehicles came closer to road-going reality after Google unveiled a prototype car which it developed with the help of Bosch back in 2012. Mercedes-Benz responded by developing an S-Class that drove 103km between the German towns of Mannheim and Pforzheim a year later.
Real commercial applications for autonomous cars will start to take off between 2020 and 2025, Mercedes board member Ola Kaellenius told Reuters last month.
"If you take the robo-taxi, you start perhaps in a city or several cities or areas of cities, and then you grow from there," he said. "The key is to get to something that you can commercialise, scale up."
The systems and hardware expertise provided by Bosch will help Mercedes-Benz make autonomous car technology which can be produced in large numbers.