Autoweek: With new tariffs looming and strong political winds blowing, do you fear something like a trade war?
Zetsche: Well, I don’t know if we have to be afraid. My general conviction always was and always will be that free trade is beneficial to everybody. On the other hand, of course, we have seen phases where developments went rather in the opposite direction, and that wasn’t good for the world economy. But I think it’s too early to tell if that will happen or what will happen here.
I know that for some time we were not allowed to import SUVs from our plant in Alabama into China because there was an issue regarding SUVs between China and the U.S. You sometimes get in the crossfire of something like this, and it’s hard to predict. But I hope that ultimately we’ll have a positive outcome from what’s going on now.
Autoweek: You’re launching new diesel engines, while some others seem to be pulling back. Does diesel still have a great future?
Zetsche: We know that our current diesels are very clean. They meet current emission laws and have the technology to follow all future laws and conditions. This is confirmed by people who do not necessarily love diesel. At the same time, the diesel continues to have a significant CO2 advantage (over gasoline), and the CO2 footprint is still what really matters to us, to mankind and the planet. I think it would be reckless not to utilize that potential.
That’s why we continue to offer vehicles with modern, very clean diesel engines to our customers. In 2017, we sold more vehicles with diesel than we did in 2016. The (take rate) in Europe remains around 50 percent.
We’ve also launched our first (diesel) hybrid, in the C-Class, combining two attractive technologies. It’s more efficient than the gasoline hybrid vehicle. We have a very good modular system where we can combine different engines with a disk-style electric motor, between the transmission and the engine. It allows an additional choice that can benefit customers.
Autoweek: A personal topic. You’re a short-timer with Daimler, in a sense. Is there anything you feel you need to do before you retire, and are you generally satisfied with the state of Mercedes-Benz?
Zetsche: My intention is not to build myself a pedestal or see a monument or something like that. I’ve been with this company a long time, always with the purpose of doing my best to make it better. For the last number of years, while I was at the helm, in the beginning there was quite a lot of restructuring we did, and refocusing, including the separation from Chrysler. Then, there was a focused, very deliberate effort to return to the top of our competitive set again by addressing basic issues of cars being attractive to customers. Now, we are in the phase of preparing for a future full of change, much of which we can only guess at, in the context of some of the other topics we’ve talked about.
I think we can go into this transformation from a position of strength. At the same time, we have a lot of technological competency, and I think as importantly we’ve promoted a culture of flexibility in recent times to address these things, and to see opportunities more than limitations. Most importantly, of course, we have to have the right people to steer the company into the future on all these accounts. I feel very satisfied about what’s going on, especially on the last point about leadership. Therefore I’d say I’m reasonably satisfied.