Local CO2-neutral powertrain systems will determine the future of the commercial vehicle industry. Gesa Reimelt and her team are driving this transformation in the R&D department of Daimler Trucks & Buses. A conversation about major challenges, customer needs and diversity in the truck business.
Ms. Reimelt, what excites you more? A tour in an electric car or truck?
Let me put it this way: when it comes to enormous acceleration, electric cars are certainly very impressive. But if you imagine that you can speed up just as well in a truck, I'd actually say that there's a little more excitement (laughs).
You have worked for both Mercedes-Benz Cars and Daimler Trucks & Buses. How do the challenges of e-mobility differ between the two areas?
We are working towards the same goal. The difference is that the customer regards the truck as an economic good. That's why we have to offer an attractive overall package - even beyond the vehicle. The vehicle must be embedded in an intelligent and holistic ecosystem. In close cooperation with our customers, we want to learn from and with them and accompany them in the transformation towards electric mobility. That's why we consult, for example, on funding options for the transition to electric mobility, such as for the development of the infrastructure, but also for fleet maintenance. We also go out to the depots and take a look at the local conditions. All in all, the relationship with the customers is more intensive. They feel like they are participating in the development of the vehicle. In fact, this is partly true: close customer contact gives us valuable information that we can incorporate into the development process.
Speaking of customer hints: The eActros is in intensive customer use as part of of an "innovation fleet". What are the findings so far?
We receive extremely positive customer feedback. Everyone who has had the opportunity to drive an e-truck recognizes the advantages. First and foremost, there is the enormous dynamic. The torque is available at any speed. In addition, the vehicles are significantly quieter and offer a pleasant, smooth driving experience. Furthermore, if the truck is driven with foresight, electrical energy can be recovered through recuperation.
Since July, you have been Head of Development at Daimler Trucks & Buses not only for alternative drive systems but also for conventional ones. What was the reason for bringing the two fields together?
At Daimler Trucks & Buses, we have clearly committed ourselves to the Paris Climate Protection Agreement and thus to the decarbonization of our industry. This includes our intention to offer our trucks and buses locally on a CO2-neutral basis in the triad markets, i.e. Europe, Japan and North America, by 2039. To achieve this goal, we are developing battery-electric and fuel-cell-powered trucks and buses. At the same time, we are working on further improving our highly efficient diesel engines, as they will continue to play a decisive role for a long time to come, especially in long-distance travel. The powertrain portfolio will therefore look much more diverse over the next ten years. Regardless of the industry, vehicle segment or application, we always aim to offer our customers the best powertrain. That's why we are pooling the relevant resources and expertise in one organization to enable us to respond flexibly to the volatile environment.
Electric mobility must be profitable for customers and also for Daimler as a manufacturer. That is a balancing act even today. How can it succeed?
As I said before: the truck is an economic good. A logistics company will not buy a particular type of powertrain just out of love for the environment. Especially because battery electric vehicles will not yet be competitive with the diesel for the foreseeable future. Over time and mileage, however, they will be able to pay off in terms of maintenance. What we need is a corresponding incentive, i.e. state steering intervention. If we as a society want to switch to E quickly, everyone must take part. We will make our contribution. If the premises for the switchover are positive, customers will make it with us. This is the goal we are working towards together with politicians, energy suppliers and network operators.
In your opinion, what will the drive mix of the future look like in freight transport?
Let me risk a glance into the crystal ball: In Europe, we will certainly see a clearly heterogeneous powertrain landscape in the coming years due to the ambitious legal requirements for CO2 reduction. In the USA, the development is more strongly driven by competition. Asia should not be underestimated either: China is the clear pioneer in terms of electrification, and the government is also providing very strong support here. Japan is far ahead in the field of hydrogen. It's an interesting race, but I think it will become visibly more diverse on the roads from 2030 at the latest. When you talk about development times for trucks, it is just one cycle.
We have now talked a lot about your profession. Do you also live sustainably in private?
The topic of sustainability is very important to me personally, not only at work but also in my private life: We have a solar thermal system for hot water and a photovoltaic system on our house that supplies us with electricity every day. It is very impressive how much solar energy can be used for household devices. These panels have developed so well in the meantime that you can get quite far with them even in winter.
A topic that is also part of sustainable business in the broadest sense is "diversity ": The truck industry is still strongly dominated by men. Has this ever been a topic on your career path so far?
Yes and no. For me personally it was not an issue - for others it was. When I started working in the commercial vehicle sector, I received many letters from women who encouraged me and were pleased that a woman and mother was taking this step. This showed me that I was already making a contribution in terms of diversity. Otherwise I would say that Daimler Trucks & Buses is already very diverse. Maybe not yet so much in terms of gender, but through its global brand portfolio, especially in the area of internationality. When we set up our team, in Germany alone there were 19 nations represented. This brings together many ideas and perspectives that could never be represented alone. I see this as a great enrichment and opportunity. And soon a woman will be joining the Truck Board. Karin Radström, who will take over the management of Mercedes-Benz Trucks in May 2021, will be a big boost for us women.
Ms. Reimelt, what motivates you about your job?
I am fascinated by the topic of mobility. And here the powertrain is the essential factor, otherwise the vehicle would be a carriage. Regardless of the energy source, I simply want to develop the best powertrain. For example, I was allowed to drive the first, highly wired B-sample of our electric series truck on the driveway. That's where you make history. But diesel technology will also be with us for a long time to come and remains an interesting field of work in which we are constantly developing our engines and powertrains and making them even more efficient. So these are very exciting times. And now fuel cell vehicles are also being added. Many generations of developers dream of this and now we're ready and I get to steer it - that's what really drives me.
For me, sustainability means ...
"... a sensitive and reflective approach to the environment and the resources available to us."
I have done a good job when ...
"... my sons proudly tell at school that they want to become zero-emission truck drivers."
If I had to choose between hydrogen or battery electric, then ...
"... I would choose battery electric for a shorter ride - and hydrogen for a longer ride."