Daimler Is Counting On Its Smart Brand To Lead Mercedes-Benz Into The Future

As Mercedes-Benz races to electrify its lineup by 2022, its smaller Smart sister brand will play an outsized role in paving the way.

Smart revealed a pair of minicar models at the Geneva Motor Show that will serve as the first series-produced vehicles for EQ, the electric vehicle sub-brand from Mercedes slated to launch by 2020. Based on Smart’s current Electric Drive models, the new battery-electric fortwo coupe and cabriolet will be rebadged as Smart EQ, an abbreviation for "Electric Intelligence."

The nameplates are due to arrive at U.S. dealerships later this year, supporting Mercedes’ goal to offer electric or hybrid variants for all of its models within the next four years. Smart, which began paring gasoline engines from its portfolio last year, is the first car brand to switch from combustion engines to a fully electric lineup.

Meanwhile, Mercedes is preparing to build its own electric vehicle. Based on the Concept EQ, an all-electric crossover with an estimated range of 310 miles, the EQC will begin production next year as the first EQ model from Mercedes. Until then, the brand is striving to stay top of mind with early adopters, investing in a strong presence at last week’s SXSW (South By Southwest) tech festival in Austin, where it gave rides in the Concept EQ and set up an extensive technology showcase at a local park.

But, for all the talk of self-driving cars in Austin last week, Smart has no plans to lead Daimler into the autonomous age. “I think for our segment, it’s still too advanced,” said Smart C.E.O. Dr. Annette Winkler. “With electric, we are perfectly poised. For autonomous driving, Smart cannot be first. We don’t have the amount of space needed for sensors and cameras and computers, and it’s also a cost issue. It’s too early for us, but it does not mean never.”

However, it is poised to support another pillar of Daimler’s future strategy – car sharing – with its Ready to Share app, which allows Smart owners to share their car with friends and family, who can check availability and request to use it.

But Winkler said that Smart's electrification strategy and foray into car sharing could ready the brand for an eventual future as self-driving "robo-taxis."

“Once [autonomous drive] is available, there will be many people asking for robo-taxis with one or two seats,” Winkler said. “We know from our research that people using car sharing don’t want to use public transportation. They want to be in a cocoon; they want their privacy. That’s why we think in the mid-term and long-term, there will be a demand for robo-taxis.”

When the mid-term begins, Winkler said, is “impossible to predict.”

Tech, CarsJaclyn TropForbes