The Catalyst for Innovation: A Conversation with CEO Arwed NiestrojMay 12, 2017
Autonomous vehicles, speech-activated digital assistants, in-dash intuitive infotainment systems – these are just a few of the ways Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) is transforming the automotive landscape.
MBRDNA lies at the heart of a dynamic environment whose pace of innovation is “dramatic,” says MBRDNA CEO Arwed Niestroj. He stepped into the role of CEO in 2014 after heading up business and development organizations at Daimler for 20 years. He has aided the transition from Mercedes-Benz as a traditional car manufacturer to becoming a technology leader, leading divisions innovating in areas including Autonomous Driving, Connected Car, Telematics and User Interaction; Advanced Exterior Design; Business Innovation and also Powertrain and eDrive, eMobility as well as Regulatory Affairs; and more all over the United States. Arwed is based at MBRDNA’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
How does he lead an organization that works at the forefront of technological change? How does he help MBRDNA’s engineers, scientists, designers and others do their best work? Here Arwed shares his definition of leadership and the direction in which he’s taking MBRDNA.
Arwed aims to increase Daimler’s competitiveness not only in the automotive industry, but also in the technology industry. To keep pace with change, he fosters a team culture that is open to risk.
“To become more dynamic, and to allow for more innovation, we need to try new things, accept failure, and try again,” he said.
He’s no stranger to risk. At Daimler, for example, he led the joint venture responsible for development and manufacturing of electric motors for vehicle powertrains and was responsible for the “Mercedes-Benz F-Cell World Drive” – the first circumnavigation of the globe with fuel cell vehicles – bringing hydrogen as car fuel to places like Kasachstan and the Australian outback.
Mercedes-Benz was the first automaker to arrive in Silicon Valley in 1995. Back then, MBRDNA was composed of just 20 people. Today, there are more than 250 employees in the two glass buildings in Sunnyvale. Almost 500 in North America. Especially, in the Silicon Valley teams of engineers, software developers and designers are encouraged to push limits and take risks across the spectrum of artificial intelligence (AI), advanced engineering, digital user interaction and user experience design, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous driving, data analytics, customer research, and much more.
“My role within MBRDNA is to not only enable people to do innovative work, but also to make sure Mercedes-Benz keeps pace with how the world is changing,” he said. “We have to be the ones driving change and make sure we are not a victim to it.”
Cars as digital sanctuaries
One change Arwed pointed out is that people are spending more time in cars than ever before; the average commute time in the U.S. has grown 20 percentsince 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cars have increasingly become an extension of driver and passenger personal space.
Arwed and his team in Sunnyvale are working to evolve the automobile into a personal digital sanctuary preparing the cars for the self-driving era.
Drivers and passengers increasingly maintain their digital lifestyle while on the road. And automobiles are getting smarter, able to intuit what drivers and passengers want to do – beyond navigation to playing their favorite music or giving restaurant suggestions.
Raising MBRDNA’s profile
Sunnyvale is a long way from Stuttgart, Germany, Daimler’s homebase. MBRDNA runs additional offices in California (Long Beach and Carlsbad), Oregon (Portland), and Michigan (Redford and Ann Arbor), supporting innovation in various segments of the industry and helping Mercedes-Benz lead the competition in automotive research and development. But the innovations happening here in Silicon Valley and at the other MBRDNA offices are making an impact around the globe and in the next generation cars.
Arwed and his team is leveraging MBRDNA’s Silicon Valley location to forge partnerships and share knowledge with not only other automotive companies, but also with tech companies. From an integrated solution with Apple Watch and Mercedes-Benz vehicles to a partnership in the development of artificial intelligence with NVIDIA, and the integration of Google Home these collaborations bring Mercedes-Benz’s expertise to the ever-evolving tech landscape. Seamless and intelligent interaction between car and home through the integration of Google Home with Mercedes-Benz vehicles is another such collaboration, now to the general public.
Additionally, MBRDNA has invested in multiple collaborative platforms to fuel advancement across technology and the mobility ecosystem. Co-hosting discussion forums with self-driving technology research firm Otto and industrial giant Bosch, supporting Udacity’s self-driving car nanodegree program, and running a robust recruiting practice are just a few of the investments MBRDNA is making in Silicon Valley and beyond, bringing together great minds to solve the world’s biggest problems. The newly-announced collaboration even has employees of Bosch and of Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz Research & Development group working side by side on the next step in Autonomous driving in Sunnyvale.
It is dynamic partnerships such as these that are expanding Mercedes-Benz’s work beyond consumer car manufacturing.
My goal for MBRDNA is to be the driver for innovation and the catalyst of Silicon Valley for Mercedes-Benz.
With collaborative efforts and investments in diverse areas from autonomous car technology to energy, MBRDNA is moving the needle for research and development across tech and mobility alike.