• A glimpse into the future: How is our mobility developing? CASE provides answers.

    Visit to the future workshop.

    A hand-picked team, big ambitions: the CASE unit is leading Mercedes-Benz into the mobility of tomorrow. Its boss Wilko Stark opened otherwise strictly closed doors for us.

    Text: Rüdiger Barth | Photos: Ramon Haindl

Designed around a battery.

The Christmas tree is placed in such a way that everyone has to go past it. Right opposite the coffee machine, in view of the “arena”. Its needles are made of plastic. When the CASE team’s project area was opened, boss Wilko Stark said: “I want to see our first EVA 2 car ready in time for Christmas.” He didn’t mean next Christmas though. It may take a little longer than that.

At Mercedes-Benz, EVA 2 refers to the electric cars that are designed around a battery and consistently exploit the advantages of electric mobility. EVA 2 is a goal, a commit­ment for the developers. And a magic word that releases energy.

Shortly after Stark’s announcement, one of the employees dragged this tree into the office.

In the middle of the “EVA 2” project area is this plastic Christmas tree.

In the middle of the “EVA 2” project area is this plastic Christmas tree. Every day, it reminds CASE employees of their ultimate goal, which is to be achieved in the near future.

CASE manager Wilko Stark and his team discuss their “mock-up”, their draft for the future.

CASE manager Wilko Stark and his team discuss their “mock-up”, their draft for the future.

“Dawn of a new era” for the automotive industry.

Wilko Stark heads the strategic division of Daimler AG and at the same time the CASE unit, an acronym for the four formative mobility trends. Group CEO Dieter Zetsche speaks of a “dawn of a new era” for the automotive industry. Electric mobility is moving on a pace. ­Digital services are growing rapidly, as is networking. And autonomous driving looms on the horizon, for Stark this is the “greatest social upheaval”. From electric vehicles, wall boxes, charging infrastructure, charging services to home energy storage: an entire new ecosystem must mature and intertwine at the same time, and in a few years’ time people should be able to experience what Stark calls “an intuitive mobility experience”.

Tomorrow’s Mercedes-Benz is full of assistance systems, live data feeds the dashboard, the car becomes the living room. “Customers of the future have nothing to worry about,” says the CASE boss, “they press their smartphone and have the mobility solution they need.” The mobility of the future is more flexible than ever before. A vision that will soon become reality.

In secured rooms.

The CASE employees, numbering approximately 500, are spread over several locations. The “EVA 2 project area” is located in Sindel­fingen. In it, there are brainstorming workstations named after inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison. The “arena”, where sometimes 80 or 90 colleagues can come together to discuss what the battery of tomorrow needs to be like. “We know exactly where we want to go,” says Stark, “but the challenges of putting it into practice are immense.”

A door swings open; it must never be left open though, otherwise a siren goes off. A “mock-up”, as they call it, is waiting in the closed room, a wooden model. An EVA 2 design for a possible future, with the battery in the underbody. So, the seating position is higher than usual today. What does this mean for headroom and visibility? A dozen colleagues discuss this, sit in it themselves to test it, feel the shape.

A few steps further, on the 9th floor of the “crescent”, the view extends over factory buildings, a Mercedes star rotates in the distance. Up here, the decisions for the 2020s are being thought through. Some of the decision points have to be set now, today.

Wilko Stark, 45 years old, has been with Daimler since 2012. He maintains open communication with his management team. He cites names such as Jochen Hermann, Oliver Wiech, Susanne Hahn, Stefan Abraham, Jörg Heinermann, Christoph Starzynski and he could name many more, professionals from development, sales, production, from all the areas of vehicle development, with the best connections in the entire Daimler organisation, and also a number of other colleagues who think “outside the box”, as the CASE manager says, going new ways.

Everyday work at CASE, ideas are often noted on colourful post-its.

Everyday work at CASE, ideas are often noted on colourful post-its.

“This is something completely new.”

Disagreements? Positively welcomed, regardless of rank. Stark lets others talk, listens, rarely intervenes. “I only have one request, but it’s important.” That’s what it sounds like when he gives an order.

They’re all on first-name terms. Talk is fast, but they all get their say. Now and then a pretzel, a banana, a doughnut, and a coffee. These are intensive days going on and on, a long, abundantly inter­woven list of to-dos that reaches far into the future. “It’s a dream job,” says Wilko Stark, “because I am surrounded by people who are intrinsically motivated, who are enthusiastic about what we are doing here, who speak ­freely.” When the first vehicle of the Mercedes-Benz electric brand comes onto the market in 2019, that will mark a turning point, he says. “This is something completely new, it calls for a completely different mindset.” Mercedes-Benz will electrify its entire portfolio by 2022, offering an electrical alter­native in every segment. A feat of historic proportions.

A fleet-footed giant.

Stark’s team is hand-picked. When CASE started in October 2016, the best people came in from the specialist departments. We are talking about huge investments in future technologies, ten billion euros. Stark reports directly to CEO Zetsche. Short decision paths, high flexibility, that is the idea. A fleet-footed giant.

Stark needs to be a pioneer and to go with his team “where no man has gone before”; he needs to be a diplomat who mediates between disciplines; he is of course also a rival who steals people, gets the budgets, grabs the attention; and he is also a guide, because these topics are often also alien to others. Intuitive mobility sounds so natural. To get there, though, the devil is in the detail. Legis­lators are currently being faced with ­topics such as data management or autonomous driving, and many ques­tions are being raised for the first time. The cultural differences in the world’s markets are also huge.

“Deciding amidst uncertainty,” Stark calls the job. But more often he uses words you wouldn’t expect in this place: gut instinct. Completely understanding all topics right down to the finest ramifications? Impossible, given their complexity. “But with the right gut feeling I am able to ask the right questions, and in the end get the best management required for the job,” he says. Are we on target? If not, what’s the problem? Stark does not give up on targets easily. Pioneers also need a certain stubbornness.

You can feel the constant struggle to keep the overview, to reduce complexity. Once a topic becomes multi-tiered again – be it from a technical, economic and legal point of view – says CASE Head of Production Abraham: “We just get swamped in the details. Like saying from 10,000 metres above sea level, do we go left or right?”

Olgaeck in Stuttgart in 2036 – the future vision of Daimler Group Research shows auto­nomous cars, a cable car. And relaxed people.

Olgaeck in Stuttgart in 2036 – the future vision of Daimler Group Research shows auto­nomous cars, a cable car. And relaxed people. Overall Concept: Daimler AG, Future Trends & Insights (RD/RIF) | realisation: XOIO GmbH

“How did you manage that?”

Sometimes it’s more important to ... just drive. Professors from Stanford University in California were here recently and wrote about the “revolutionary puzzle” that Stark has to solve (see link), and about “Germany’s obsession with excellence, precision and success”. Is that a burden when speed counts? “No,” says Stark. “I see that as a clear competitive advantage.”

Then: CASE fixed scheduled meetings. Topic on topic. For 10, maybe 15 minutes. A colleague introduces a group subsidiary’s app. Chic, simple. Very, yes: intuitive to use. “How did you manage that?” CASE wants to learn as quickly as possible, no matter from whom. Daimler works closely with Bosch in the development of autonomous vehicles. “That’s how we think today,” says Stark. “Without barriers. Sometimes wild and far-out, then concentrated back on feasibility again. It’s a balancing act, every day.” The concept of an autonomous car is on the agenda. A new powerful sensor set is being discussed. “How do we deal with design?” asks one, another asks: “How much does that cost?” ­Classic vehicle develop­ment technique. “Let’s quickly get a feel for what’s possible,” says Stark, “I want the maximum package”. But then: “Let’s make it as intuitive as possible. The customers do not want to think about what they have to do. They just want to do it.”

The spirit of the digital age.

You plan everything from the customer’s point of view. This is the spirit of the digital age. What are their pain points? Does such a car of the future need an emergency steering wheel in case it breaks down, to manoeuvre onto the tow truck? “What are the conse­quences of that, from a construction perspective?” The ques­tion is open. “This is a concept-­relevant decision,” says Stark, many years before the market launch. They will find a solution.

Later, on another question, they tear into each other. “You don’t need to have such fierce discussions,” shouts the colleague from control­ling. Laughter in the room.

Stark says: “This is fun, isn’t it?”

Places of retreat in the bustling project area.

Places of retreat in the bustling project area.

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