With the 25th annual South By Southwest festival once again taking over Austin Texas, the masses flocked to the capital of the Lone Star State to be indoctrinated into the world of hi-tech ideas, open-bar sponsored parties, music madness, and BBQ. Although not usually as omnipresent in the Gram culture, the beginning of SXSW features a multi-day tech portion in which people come to pitch, to be pitched, to absorb, expound, and disrupt. One of the key partners of South By (that’s how the cool kids refer to it) this year was luxury automotive giant Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes brought their unique, forward-thinking me Convention to Austin with the intention of introducing the world to one of their major mandates, the Future of Mobility. Although it is a simple turn of phrase it packs a significant and important punch.

To get to the heart of what this means we need to understand the acronym C.A.S.E. which stands for the four trends Connectivity, Autonomous Driving, Shared & Services and E-Mobility. Four words/concepts that are so powerful that they lead Mercedes to start their own division whose purpose is to explore and grow these ideas. As Wilko Stark, Vice President of the Daimler and Mercedes-Benz Cars Strategy since 2013 and Head of C.A.S.E. since last year explains “each of these has the power to turn our entire industry upside down. But the true revolution is in combining them in a comprehensive, seamless package.”

Stark’s responsibility is to ensure Mercedes-Benz Cars’ core business profitability and competitiveness by setting up an outstanding product and technology portfolio as well as pushing forward each C.A.S.E. dimension and their intelligent combination into new, innovative and customer-oriented business models. To achieve a consistent logic from strategy up to implementation, Stark is responsible within the Mercedes-Benz Cars Strategy for the planning, development, and production of electric vehicles and is responsible for the integration of all C.A.S.E. topics.

We sat down to chat with Stark to discuss this and more.

Sidewalk Hustle: Whats the idea behind C.A.S.E.?

Wilko Stark: From our perspective at Mercedes-Benz we said there are four major trends which are changing the automotive industry fundamentally. On the one hand side connectivity it’s from human to autonomous-driving and its shared mobility and services and electro-mobility. Therefore we built up this division called C.A.S.E. which is combining all these trends, and we want to push these trends together. Our vision at the end is to develop self-driving cars embedded in Mobility Services. Mobility will change and have dramatic impact on society, especially in inner cities (not so much suburban areas) we have self-driving cars, you have mobility services like Lyft and Uber, we have mytaxi in Europe so we are number one in Europe regarding ride-hailing services and that’s our vision and therefore we set up this division to really drive these trends forward.

SH: Why break the Paradigm? Why would we want to take the people from behind the wheels of their cars?

WS: For one simple reason technology is further developing and we want to have an environment and a future which is sustainable which is Green, Social and Free and that’s our vision and given the legislation we have around the globe, in China, in Europe and also in the US,  you will see a higher share of electrification, all kinds of electrification, this is the idea we embrace with our technology brand EQ. So this is our vision, self-driving cars, of course, it’s fun to drive, there’s no question, and look at Mercedes AMG,  fun to drive, but we are also in situations, especially in cities with traffic jams etc where it’s unfortunately not fun to drive. In these cases you have mobility services of a self-driving car so that you can use the time not looking at the road but reading a book, listening to music, chatting video conferences whatever, I think that’s also an improvement in the quality of life.

SH: How does this change how we interact with the automobile? Do I need a steering wheel? Do I need a driver’s license?

WS: In the first step we will see self-driving services, self-driving cars which are embedded in Mobility Services like Lyft and like Uber, and you can imagine if you take a smartphone or if you take the telecom network today you have LTE you have 3G, etc and imagine you still have cars, with a driver, but you also have self-driving cars. This will be the beginning, so this means that for example in inner cities like San Francisco if you want to commute, and this is already happening today, people usually commute with Uber or with Lyft because parking is very expensive in downtown San Francisco. These people still have their own car for the weekend to go skiing or whatever, so from my perspective we will have two worlds, where there will be a big market for people who want to own a car, because it’s an emotional product, and household incomes are increasing, and people still want to buy it. On the other hand, it might be adequate to use a mobility service or self-driving cars to get around.

SH: What are some of the hurdles for you to get to this future of mobility? 

WS: The key hurdles in developing this future is really the development of autonomous driving because this actually means we need to talk about artificial intelligence, deep learning of the computer system because the car has to learn different traffic situation. It’s very simple here in the US because of the grids, but in Europe more difficult, or China which has difficult traffic situations and when you have completely different traffic situations, for example in Melbourne Australia, they have something called a Hook Turn. This is something completely new. Therefore we really have to test our self-driving vehicles all around the globe. The other part is the development of a better battery electric vehicle. This means the development of the batteries that have a range of about 500 kilometers, that’s really convenient for the customer, we are also developing in the future a self-automated charging system, where you just park your car in the garage and it’s automated and it charges by itself, so you have to do nothing. In the future, the car will actually drive into the garage by itself. That’s the future, you won’t have to go to the petrol station and this is an improvement in the quality of life.

SH: Is this future expensive? To build this future do you have to build new infrastructure? 

WS: Absolutely, for electric vehicles, you DO have to build up the infrastructure, a charging infrastructure, so this is what we started in Europe to be built up together with Volkswagen Group, BMW, and Ford Motor Company. Actually four-hundred fast charging stations on the highways across Europe. This actually means you can drive with an electric vehicle across Europe and the big difference is that we go to a power of 250 kilowatts, even 350 kilowatts with 800 voltages, so this means that you can recharge your electric vehicle within 30 minutes. Grab a coffee and just go back and when the car is completely recharged you are going another four hundred, five hundred kilometers again.

SH: Are there areas in the world that are quicker to adapt to this than others?

WS: Sure. Based on regulations China is at the forefront of electrification and by law, if you need a new number plate (license plate) it has to be an electric vehicle in Beijing and Shanghai already. The Chinese government is pushing electric vehicles like hell. They will have a share of electric vehicles in 2025, about 25%, this is at least the target for the Chinese government. So China is really the front-runner, followed by Europe and then the US, except California, is a little later on.

SH: When can we expect to see all this come to the market?

WS: We will be coming out with self-driving cars actually beginning next decade, so it’s not so far actually, two, three, four years from now. That’s our vision.

SH: Thank you for your time.

WS: You’re welcome.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It’s comforting to see that a brand who has been in the automotive business for over a hundred years taking the lead in creating a new paradigm of transportation. It’s a change of mindset that is needed in the 21st century and one that we can not afford to ignore. Learn more about Mercedes-Benz and the future of mobility now by watch their snazzy SXSW recap video below. Want more? Then head over to the Mercedes-Benz C.A.S.E. microsite and keep up to date with what the brand is working on.