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A Herculean task for established manufacturers

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In conversation with Prof. Stefan Bratzel, Founder and Director of the Center of Automotive Management (CAM)

Stefan Bratzel

Porträt: © Center of Automotive Management

Prof. Bratzel, in the current study "The Future of Mobility", CAM identifies three major innovation trends. The front-runner in terms of manufacturer innovations is "user interface" with an increase of 67 % in the past five years. What does this mean for drivers in concrete terms?

The number of functions in the vehicle has increased enormously. It is the great art of car manufacturers to reduce this complexity in the car with appropriate operating and display concepts so that these functions are manageable in the true sense of the word. For example, through voice commands or touchscreens. In addition, the respective function only comes to the fore when it is needed or makes sense. One example is the display of speed limits. These advances in the user interface are almost mandatory if the driver is not to be hopelessly overwhelmed by the variety of new functions.

In second place among innovations, the study names "connectivity" - with an increase of 18 %. What are the biggest milestones of the recent past?

First of all, it is now largely guaranteed that the communication between the customer and the vehicle works well. That is the basis. The customer can use his portfolio of services that he is used to outside the vehicle, for example certain apps for entertainment, smoothly inside as well. Now we are seeing a trend towards networking the vehicle with its environment. I'm thinking of "coming home" functions, among other things: The car communicates with the smart house, so to speak. The garage door is opened and the light is switched on when it gets dark, etc.

In view of the media presence, the six percent increase in innovations in the field of autonomous driving seems surprisingly low. Is this proof that we are still many years away from comprehensive solutions?

The low-hanging fruit in this area has already been harvested in recent years. With Level 2, we are talking about the system taking over longitudinal and lateral guidance in certain situations. This has already been implemented in most segments. Now we are approaching the level where the driver no longer has to monitor the system permanently. Here, the first practical implementations have already been made. In the USA, you no longer need to touch the steering wheel. The latest S-Class or the EQS from Mercedes has a traffic jam pilot, a so-called Level 3 system, in which the car takes over responsibility for the driving task. During this time, the driver can, for example, surf the internet or write emails. A lot has already been achieved with such solutions. But now, in my opinion, we need further quantum leaps to realise the next levels.

Are technical or legal requirements lacking above all?

Both. Because even if a lot seems possible technologically, there are still hurdles to overcome. I was in San Francisco and Silicon Valley last summer. I was impressed by the GM Cruise robot taxis. But weak points are obvious. For example, eight to nine of these autonomous taxis gathered at one intersection and couldn't get anywhere. In the end, the problem had to be solved manually by humans. Conclusion: I expect that we will not see the next dimension of autonomous driving on a larger scale until the end of the 2020s.

Silicon Valley is a good keyword: How is the development of local OEMs and suppliers into tech companies and mobility service providers going? Is the "transformation through software" working?

This is happening much more slowly than the car manufacturers once thought. VW, with its delayed software strategy, is certainly representative of the industry as a whole. The local manufacturers are having a much harder time with the new vehicle architectures than with e-mobility. Quite simply, completely different competences are now required. The good news is that the complexity and importance of the task have now been recognised. But the implementation will still take quite a while. That, incidentally, is the biggest difference between Tesla and the established players. Tesla has put the car on top of the software - not the other way around. The other manufacturers face a "co-co-co-challenge": The first "Ko" stands for new competences, the second for new cooperations that have to be entered into with tech specialists. And the third "Ko" means culture and organisation - they have to develop a digital mindset to be successful in the future. All in all, this is a Herculean task, no question.

You indicated earlier that the German manufacturers are already quite well positioned in terms of e-mobility. However, of the approximately seven million battery electric vehicles last year, less than one million came from the Volkswagen Group, BMW and Mercedes. How do you classify that?

It is true. In this area, the manufacturers mentioned are not quite far ahead. To be fair, the figures are also due to the fact that the Chinese companies and Tesla have come through the chip crisis better. But yes, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Can Tesla still be caught at all? Or can it only be left behind in the longer term?

I expect it to take up to five years for Tesla to catch up and perhaps even turn the tables.

How can German manufacturers already score points against the competition from the USA and the Far East?

After all, we are essentially talking about premium manufacturers. They still master the old virtues such as the enormously important product quality. And we must not and should not underestimate their innovative strength. In terms of technology, the German OEMs are well positioned. The new thing is that they have got massive competition. But they will not disappear from the scene, I am convinced of that.

Thank you very much for your interesting assessments.


ist Gründer und Direktor des unabhängigen Forschungsinstituts Center of Automotive Management (CAM) an der Fachhochschule der Wirtschaft in Bergisch Gladbach. Nach einem Studium der Politikwissenschaften an der Freien Universität Berlin und der anschließenden Promotion wurde Bratzel in und um die Automobilbranche aktiv. Hier durchlief der 1967 geborene Wissenschaftler verschiedene Stationen: als Produktmanager bei der Daimler-Tochter smart, als Programm-Manager bei der Telefonica-Tochter Group3G und als Leiter Business Development Automotive beim mittelständischen Softwareunternehmen PTV. Seit April 2004 arbeitet Stefan Bratzel an der Fachhochschule der Wirtschaft in Bergisch Gladbach (bei Köln) als Dozent und Studiengangsleiter für Automotive Management sowie in der Forschung & Beratung als Direktor des ortsansässigen Auto-Instituts CAM. Stefan Bratzel befasst sich in seinen Forschungen mit den Erfolgs- und Überlebensbedingungen von Automobilherstellern und Zulieferern sowie den Zukunftsfragen der Mobilität.


Daniel Boss