Ola Kallenius has many unique firsts to his credit as the 53-yearold traversed nearly three decades to make it to the top job at German automotive giant Mercedes-Benz. Born in Sweden, he not only became the first non-German to occupy the position of CEO as well as chairman of the board of Mercedes-Benz in 2019, but he also happens to be one of the first non-engineers to reach the coveted position as he came only with a finance and accounting background. As he navigates transformation of Mercedes-Benz from a producer of fuel-guzzling vehicles to an era of sustainability, connectivity, and electrics where American Tesla dominates, Kallenius counts India as one of the key enablers to drive the next phase of growth and innovation for the industry. “The future belongs to India,” Kallenius tells TOI. And, he counts not only the market’s potential for sales, but also immense tech talent at its Bangalore innovation hub. Excerpts:
How do you see the Indian car market, which has developed global scale but remains small for luxury makers?
India is one of the fastest growing markets for us globally. We are also one of the first players in India to start manufacturing electrics in the premium category. As a car industry, India closed 2022 at around 3. 8 million. Roughly, 1% of this was the upper-premium segment where we are the market leaders. I strongly believe that this segment is going to grow. The gradient is pointing upwards. With continued upward economic growth of India, the future belongs to India. Upper middle-class and more wealthy people will look towards Mercedes. At the same time, may be one has to have a strategic patience and not extrapolate the curve from any other market.
You’ve been driving the global electrification journey at MercedesBenz. Do you think electrics are the future?
If you take it from a global level, climate change is real. We need to de-carbonise, we need to move off fossil fuels. So, it becomes a natural choice that electricity is the formof energy that you’ll use to propel a vehicle… in 2019, we gave ourselves a 20-year perspective and three product life cycles to do it. Since then, we have upped our ambitions and in the summer of 2021, we said that we should be able to go quicker. So, we made a decision that all new vehicle architectures from 2025 forward will be electrical. We are going from electric-first to electric-only… we are going to accelerate it. Is it going to be closer to 2039 or 2030? I’m going to say it’s going to be closer to 2030.
Did the rise of Elon Musk and his success with Tesla take you by surprise?
Do you think he is plain lucky or he is a genius? I made a habit in the sportthat I play to not comment on the playing skills of other sportsmen. But if I venture just a little bit, it’s no doubt that he has been a visionary technologist and also a catalyst for this change.
Your assessment of Bangalore centre, which is working on cutting-edge technologies. . .
I was super impressed when I visited our tech sanctuary in Bangalore to see both the product sites, where they are deeply involved in engineering of the next gen, operating system, etc, and on the process side as well. As we move towards de-carbonising engines, almost a bigger technological revolution is happening on the digital side. Few of those are programmed at Bangalore. Around 26 years back, we were one of the pioneers that came here when the auto industry really hadn’t yet detected India. Now we are so deeply rooted with our engineering effort here that the technologies that we develop in Bangalore are the technologies for Mercedes globally… a significant brain power is sitting in Bangalore… you’ll find India in every single Mercedes sold somewhere. Bangalore is an important part of the Mercedes-Benz brain.