Interview with Jasmin Eichler, Head of Future Technologies

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Walking the fine line

Ever since the invention of the automobile, innovations have been a fixed element of Daimler’s DNA. But the transformation of the automobile industry has never been as pervasive and dynamic as it is today. In this interview Jasmin Eichler, Head of Future Technologies Research at Daimler, explains how Group Research aims to resolve the major issues related to the future of the automobile and sustainable mobility.

Ms. Eichler, Ola Källenius and James Cameron presented the VISION AVTR concept car at the CES in Las Vegas. What was your impression of the reactions of the visitors, the professional community, and your colleagues here at Daimler?
We’ve received an overwhelming amount of feedback. Of course we feel that this is very gratifying — the reviews have been predominantly positive. With our concept vehicle, our designers boldly took a look at a far distant future. The VISION AVTR embodies our designers’, engineers’, and trend researchers’ vision of mobility and was inspired by the makers of the film AVATAR. It shows an entirely new kind of interaction between human beings, machines, and nature.

You became the head of the Future Technologies center almost two years ago…
Yes, so far it has been an incredibly exciting but also challenging journey. But I couldn’t have had this kind of journey without a well-functioning team of very experienced people with strong personalities. We now work in a more decentralized, networked, and agile way, and within our changed structures we’re ready to tackle new challenges and framework conditions that are constantly changing.

Jasmin Eichler, Head of Future Technologies at Daimler.
Jasmin Eichler, Head of Future Technologies at Daimler.

What exactly do these challenges for Future Technologies consist of?
We are shaping the innovations associated with the future of the automobile. It’s an extremely multilayered mission. At issue are the fundamental questions regarding mobility in a dynamically changing and volatile sector, where this topic has greatly increased in importance and is still doing so. Of course we want to go on producing cool cars that appeal to people’s emotions, for future generations as well — generations that deal very differently and much more consciously with their CO₂ footprint. We believe that individual mobility can be a valuable asset even for the Fridays for Future generation. But how should we proceed? What kind of cars does this generation want to drive, and what are its expectations regarding the personal, sustainable, and modern luxury that our Mercedes-Benz brand stands for? One of our central tasks is to find out the answers to these questions and to reconcile the ostensible conflict between individual mobility and sustainability.

And what’s your answer?
It’s very complex, and of course it will take a long time to completely formulate it. One of our concrete projects is currently called “The Next Green Thing.”

How is the project coming along?
We are focusing intensely on our sustainable business strategy and the “Ambition 2039” offensive. Group Research has already been working for a very long time on one of its pillars, (locally) emission-free mobility. Under the motto “The Next Green Thing,” we are now looking hard for additional impulses from outside that can support us as we move toward CO₂ neutrality. The comprehensive digitalization of our company and our products can also be achieved even faster if we work with carefully selected strategic partners.

Digitalization is a good keyword …
… It certainly is: “Software eats the world.” Seriously, there’s a lot of truth in that saying. Our products and services for our customers are inevitably becoming more and more digital. In this area, our goal is to apply the principle “Human first” to achieve a balance between human beings and technology. Our solutions put people’s freedom, decision-making authority, and individuality in the center.

”Safety is one of the most important factors in the development of every single new technology. ”

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Jasmin Eichler Head of Future Technologies, Daimler

Are you a “digital native”?
I come from the software sector. Before I came to Daimler, I worked on software escalation projects at SAP in Beijing for five years. I initially encountered Daimler from the perspective of a typical software developer and architect: Why does this process exist in exactly this form? Why does it require several coordination loops? I very quickly learned that even if you’re a software expert you need to have tremendous respect for the automobile. Today I’m proud to have this attitude.

What’s the result of this respect?
We have to keep in mind that a car isn’t a smartphone, it’s much more complex! People drive our products, and they trust us with their own lives and the lives of their families, friends, etcetera. We bear a great deal of responsibility. So it’s only logical that we strive to achieve a “zero accident philosophy” and that safety is one of the most important factors in the development of every single new technology.

What are the consequences of this approach?
You don’t casually install software on this kind of thing if you don’t know all of the consequences down to the last detail. I don’t simply start programming and routinely fix a bug as needed, with the next release. An error that happens before the next release could have bad consequences. All the processes in a vehicle have to operate at extreme levels of safety. That’s why I don’t want to solve everything by means of software. An automobile is still a hardware-based object — and it’s very good to have an analog basis that functions simply and reliably. Only the perfect combination of the two worlds leads to the right products.

How, and how far, do you and your teams look into the future?
We’re always walking the fine line between “too crazy” and “not crazy enough.” The Vision AVTR concept car is certainly an extreme example of that. It pushes the limits of technically verifiable and creative speculation that is nonetheless based on science. However, a time horizon of more than 30 years is certainly realistic and also absolutely important in terms of basic research, especially in view of global future scenarios.

The Vision Mercedes-Benz AVTR

The VISION AVTR is a mixture of science and creative speculation.
The VISION AVTR is a mixture of science and creative speculation.
Instead of a conventional steering wheel, the multifunctional control element in the center console allows human and machine to merge.
Instead of a conventional steering wheel, the multifunctional control element in the center console allows human and machine to merge.
This concept vehicle embodies the vision of Mercedes-Benz designers, engineers and trend researchers for mobility in the distant future.
This concept vehicle embodies the vision of Mercedes-Benz designers, engineers and trend researchers for mobility in the distant future.
By simply lifting the hand, a menu selection is projected onto the palm of the hand, through which the passenger can intuitively choose between different functionalities.
By simply lifting the hand, a menu selection is projected onto the palm of the hand, through which the passenger can intuitively choose between different functionalities.
The name of the concept vehicle stands not only for the close collaboration with the AVATAR team but also for ADVANCED VEHICLE TRANSFORMATION.
The name of the concept vehicle stands not only for the close collaboration with the AVATAR team but also for ADVANCED VEHICLE TRANSFORMATION.
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Where are you headed?
Our mission is to inspire Daimler. For example, I personally love science fiction. Just thinking about the question “How could all of this function in the future?” is really exciting. But at the same time, in Group Research we always have to ask ourselves “How much of this is actually realistic?” This question defines me. The work we do here doesn’t consist of pure dreaming. We ultimately have to keep an eye on utility, technology, and innovation that benefits our customers, and we have to measure the real added value in order to create better products. In addition to the natural limits of our resources, that always brings us back to reality very quickly. How will this function in technical terms? How much of this can I already implement today? Or what kind of further research do I now have to do so that it can be technically implemented in five or ten years? That’s the real challenge.

”Our claim is that we are moving far enough ahead of the trends.”

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Jasmin Eichler Head of Future Technologies, Daimler

How do you make sure Group Research doesn’t miss out on any relevant developments?
We’ve got a global network of researchers who are always in touch with the latest developments here in Germany, but also all over Europe, in the Silicon Valley, in India, Israel, and especially China. What’s more, here in Germany we cooperate very closely with researchers at universities, project partners, and startups. We have regular discussions to decide which themes we want to continue exploring. Of course it’s not simply a question of not missing out on any trend in our sector. Our claim is that we are moving far enough ahead of the trends. Trends are only slightly ahead of the mainstream. They are no longer the future.

Can you give us an insight into what you mean by that?
Quantum computing is a wonderful example. This technology can fundamentally change the world. We’re watching this development very closely. Through a partnership with Google and IBM in Silicon Valley, our colleagues are participating in discussions in the core research groups, because we can provide them with concrete use cases involving batteries or other applications in vehicles. This development is phenomenal. It’s worthwhile in any case, even if it doesn’t result in genuine concrete utility in vehicles in the immediate future.

How do you find the experts who do top-level research?
They find us. The keywords “Daimler” and “research” are still very effective, and we’ve got an outstanding reputation. When I tell someone I’m doing research at Daimler, I get an appreciative “wow effect” immediately. No other automaker has made the same kind of research vehicles with such important innovations that we have. This strong public image has a big effect.

In which disciplines do you need experts?
We have our technical experts in a wide variety of areas: software, AI, engineering, design — and everything connected with them. We’re looking in particular for combinations of skills. The ideal digitalizers are those who have experience in the areas of software and vehicles and who bring us a perfect perspective from both fields. And we also have some futurologists. These are our free spirits, who simply think laterally and view the future through very unconventional glasses. When they have discussions with our engineers, it’s a welcome source of inspiration and a real enrichment.

When you look at the future, how do you identify the themes that are relevant for Daimler?
We examine the issues from very diverse perspectives and make decisions as a team. For example, if a developer who is thrilled by technology is determined to work on a certain theme, we have to take into account its social context as well, for example. The time might not be right for that particular technology, because people are looking at the theme from a completely different perspective and we first have to create a connection.

Can you give us an example?
In the context of autonomous driving, we’ve been studying the communication between human beings and machines. The artificial intelligence in a fully automated car is of course initially a black box. It even can’t tell me, the pedestrian on the street, “I’ve seen you” or — and this is where it gets dangerous — “I’ve only just seen you, so be careful.” For autonomously driving vehicles, we have to rethink aspects of interpersonal communication that are a matter of course between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Now we say, “Okay, maybe the autonomously driving car needs light signals.” However, red lights already have a defined meaning in road traffic, and that goes for green and yellow lights as well. People have now decided worldwide to use turquoise light to communicate the autonomous driving mode and send signals to the vehicle’s surroundings. That’s just a small insight into how we are dealing with the theme comprehensively, from the technical, social, and legal perspectives.

”It’s better to make one wrong decision than to leave ten opportunities unexplored.”

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Jasmin Eichler Head of Future Technologies, Daimler

When you’re dealing with the future, how great is the risk of making a fool of yourself at some point? Right at the beginning of the exhibition in the Mercedes-Benz Museum, there’s a quotation from the German Emperor Wilhelm II at the beginning of the 20th century: “My money’s on the horse — the automobile’s just a passing fad.”
In my opinion, this question has two aspects. One of them is the fear of embarrassment. That can’t be allowed to happen if we want to boldly forge ahead to secure Daimler’s future. Today there are so many developments, innovations, political influences and other aspects I can’t control. As a result, you can’t ever completely avoid miscalculations. Personally, I don’t get embarrassed. I take responsibility.

And what’s the second aspect?
You have to stay on track. We have to make decisions that are as well-founded as possible. In that kind of situation I believe in the wisdom of the network. And even if you’ve checked all the processes, all the priorities, and all the KPIs, today it’s completely normal to discover that you may still be making a false move. But I still advocate forging ahead. It’s better to make one wrong decision than to leave ten opportunities unexplored.

The automobile sector is in a state of transition. Why is research so important in these times?
Always being curious about what comes next is part of our company’s DNA and the natural motivation of every researcher. As a company that was founded by engineers, we believe that innovations are the key to a better future. That’s why we’re passionate about being innovative and taking on the pioneering role. Especially during periods of transformation, we want to continue being pioneers in the area of research — always with the mission of ultimately implementing our innovations successfully in vehicles.

How have you implemented the principle of efficiency?
I’m a strong advocate of teamwork. That means pulling down ivory towers, setting your ego aside, bringing people together, working on the issues cooperatively, and being successful as a team. We have systematically eliminated the barriers between research, advanced engineering, and series development.

Is MBUX an example of this kind of work process?
MBUX is research, advanced engineering, and series development rolled into one. Before my present job, I was involved in MBUX as the person responsible for the product side, and that was exciting. At MBUX we worked as a team across a wide spectrum of disciplines. If we hadn’t been such a heterogeneous team of experts, it would never have been possible to bring such a system, which sets a benchmark in our industry, into series production in such a short period of time.

You have now also implemented this principle in the field of research…
In the past, many solutions were approached three different times in the separate units — and that used up a lot of time and resources. We have now turned this procedure upside down. Instead of ivory towers, we now have a linear development stream. The researchers work together with the people from Advanced Engineering and Series Development to define priorities and critical points. Then we form joint teams within the big network. We split up the work: The researchers operate as innovation drivers and work on a few future-oriented themes, while the developers deal with the implementation in series production. But we ensure that they coordinate all of their work with one another and that new findings can flow into series production via short routes. In this creative way, we’re already accomplishing considerably more today with the same amount of resources. Our new model of integrated research and development is a success, as you can see from our initial results.

”We can’t make progress without research.”

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Jasmin Eichler Head of Future Technologies, Daimler

Once again, could you provide a concrete example?
I’m personally proud of a rather small and inexpensive software product that we are now using in the development process. We use it to bring CAE and CAD together — in other words, we’re using computer-aided engineering for calculation and the engineering design process. They used to be two separate processes carried out by two separate disciplines. Our new tool brings both of them together, and the result is increased efficiency. With this tool we remove additional kilos of weight from components that our engineering designers have already optimized, for example. This is how we researchers make a relevant contribution that can be measured in our existing model series in terms of costs and weight.

What’s “the next big thing” after digitalization?
Digitalization will change our world with increasing speed. It’s a permanent companion — not only in our products and services for customers but also in our core business operations. In order to be prepared for the future, we are reinventing our processes and methods. All of our efficiency increases have a digital aspect as a rule, either in the process or in the product. We can’t make progress without research.

Still, the framework conditions have changed…
Yes, as researchers we don’t want to lock ourselves into a room from which we send out our results at some point. I fully support the principle of not constantly asking for additional resources but instead making the best use of the capacities you already have. Our restructuring of Research and Advanced Engineering has pretty much been completed. We are now set up in a way that enables us to move forward with a good setup. This is a genuine opportunity. We are creating the right balance between applied research and basic principles. On the one hand, we’re going for innovations that can be applied in the short term. That’s our main focus. On the other, we are efficiently prioritizing funding for basic research, which will enable us to identify the next big themes of future mobility.

Is Industry 4.0 one of these themes?
Of course all of our internal methods and processes are subject to digitalization. Our ultimate aim is to structure our processes in state-of-the-art networks as much as possible and to integrate our suppliers as effectively as possible into the currently operating process chains. Our colleagues in the production units are also focusing intensely on how they can make artificial intelligence, big data production, and logistics better and more efficient.

At the beginning of this interview you revealed that you’re a science fiction fan. Are you a member of the Star Wars or the Star Trek faction?
I’m thrilled by both of them. I find science fiction exciting in general. Interstellar is one of the best and most realistic films made in recent years. It fascinates me: a new start, a journey into the unknown — without any certainty of where it will take you, what the future will bring, and how it will all end.

About Jasmin Eichler

Jasmin Eichler has headed the Future Technologies center at Daimler since 2018. Previously she worked on MBUX as the Head of Operations at the Connected Car & Infotainment Systems unit. Before coming to Daimler she had worked at SAP for seven years, much of that time in Beijing, China. Jasmin Eichler has a Master of Sience in Information Systems from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Holger Mohn

is just as relaxed as Jasmin Eichler about the dispute over Star Trek versus Star Wars — even though other sci-fi fans regard this as the ultimate question of principle. However, in the next interview he would like to clarify two or three details in this connection: Kirk or Spock? The Starfleet or the Klingon Empire? The rebels or the Empire? Jar Jar Binks or Chewbacca (that was a joke — this has never really been an issue)?

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