Dietmar Exler has a lot on his plate.
The new CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA is orchestrating not only the second half of the company’s move from New Jersey to metro Atlanta, but the start of the company’s new headquarters campus in Sandy Springs.
On Sept. 26, Mercedes held the ceremonial ground breaking for the campus, which Exler said will open in 2018 with space for up to 1,000 employees.
In January 2015, Mercedes made public its plans to move to Georgia, and the company opened its temporary home in Dunwoody that summer. This past January, Exler was promoted to CEO after predecessor Steve Cannon joined Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s family of businesses.
Exler sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to talk about the move, as well as industry issues including development of autonomous vehicles. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and length:
Q: Give me an update on your transition to Atlanta.
A: We opened the doors [of the Dunwoody temporary headquarters] on July 6. We have about 550 jobs here now. About 200 came with us from Montvale. We’ve hired more than 300 people in Atlanta. We have great people. We had more than 18,000 applications so the ones that we got were the best of the best. We are really, really happy with the new people.
Q: Where would you say where you are in the transition, if you started at 0 and 100 is finished?
A: We’re not at 100 but we are way more than the half point. To some extent the second year is almost more difficult. In the first year, everybody understands when we opened here in July it was all hands on deck. After a while, people get more experience and everything is getting a little easier, there is still more effort needed in a way.
Q: How do you feel about the progress you have made designing the new headquarters?
A: We feel good. We have a nice facility but temporary isn’t your own… With 300 new people, half them are female between the ages of 25 and 35, we need a day care facility. If they don’t (now), they will, have kids. You can forget about diversity and being a fair and equitable employer if you don’t support your workers with day care. We will have a nice day care facility. We will have a gym. Not that I need to use it, I come from the country of Schwarzenegger and I have muscles by birth.
Many of the employees enjoy working out. We will have a great cafeteria with two wok stations and of course all the burgers and everything and a big salad bar and a pasta station, pizza and healthy stuff. What makes it exciting is we are going to make it ours.
Q: How do you hope the building shapes the work you do and how do you shape the building to get that outcome?
A: We designed the building to take a little bit of space away from everybody. We call it less me space and more we space. There is an enormous amount of collaboration space, conference rooms. So we won’t be in a situation where if (a team) wants to get together right now we can’t find a conference room. We will have enough conference rooms, enough meeting rooms to foster that [collaboration].
Q: Where do you see the future of autonomous vehicles?
A: You are aware of the official categories, L-1, L-2, L-3, L-4, L-5. We like at Mercedes for our features to be in the L-2 category and that means it’s still a driver-assist feature.
There’s two major challenges in the technology going forward. One is a technology and engineering challenge… . If it’s a snow-covered road, how does the machine know where the road ends? Or if it’s raining and traffic lights are reflected in parked cars, how does the machine know what is a traffic light and what’s a reflection? Not an issue for a human being, but how does the machine know it?
That’s one set of challenges and the engineers will get that done… . The second dimension is a much more complicated one and that’s the machine-human interface… . When you drive in Atlanta you probably violate the traffic laws all the time. I’ll give you one example, we all do it, if there’s a lot of traffic and it’s bumper-to-bumper, by law you are required to keep a safe distance from the car in front of you. What happens if you do that? Somebody cuts you off. So you drive an autonomous car, the car keeps that safe distance somebody cuts you off. What does the car do? It keeps a safe distance again and somebody cuts you off. The only question in that scenario is, will the guy behind you go nuts before you go nuts?
You could say, ‘No cop is going to write you a ticket for that. Not going to happen.’ So let’s program the car so that it doesn’t keep that safe distance so that doesn’t happen. Well it’s a little bit problematic to get a car certified that by definition violates the laws. You are not going to get certification. How do we handle these things? It would be no issue if all the cars on the road were autonomous cars. Then it’s fine …
Another one, if you drive the speed limit, well if you drive the speed limit on I-75 it’s almost dangerous. What do we do? Program the car to drive the speed limit. Well, we can’t program it to go over the speed limit. [The intersection between human behavior and machines that must follow the law] is not something that the engineers can address. That is something that we as a society or the regulators have to get into it.
It’s where human behavior and the rules of the road are not necessarily aligned. That’s the toughest part.
Q: Have you been following Uber and their autonomous tests in Pittsburgh? I think the vehicles there aren’t allowed to turn right on red, for instance. It’s legal to do that where allowed and human drivers do it without thinking about it.
A: There you see exactly the problems. I don’t have any insights about Uber and I can’t comment on too much of what they do other than what you read in the newspaper. The cars are limited to 25 miles, it’s only in certain areas. It’s very careful and hands on. But basically everybody is dipping their toes into the water and trying to figure it out and everyone uses a slightly different approach.
We will get there as an industry. I don’t think it’s going to be next year, I don’t think it will be two years from now. I think it will take a little bit longer, not necessarily on the technology issues, I think it will take longer on the human-machine interface issues to figure it out.
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Name: Dietmar Exler
Title: President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA
Education: Doctorate of law, Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria; master of laws, University of Chicago
Source: Mercedes-Benz USA
“We will have a gym. Not that I need to use it, I come from the country of Schwarzenegger and I have muscles by birth.”
— Dietmar Exler, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, on the company’s new Sandy Springs headquarters