Mercedes-Benz plans to unveil the third generation of its Sprinter van in Germany in early February.
The German automaker has big plans for the 2019 Sprinter. The new model will be made internationally, including at a soon-to-open factory in North Charleston, S.C. It will come in multiple configurations — diesel, gas and even battery electric. Depending on the market it will be sold as a front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive. There will be three roof heights.
Like the current Sprinter van there will be cargo and passenger models.
Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, explained the automaker’s plans for the 2019 Sprinter in a recent roundtable with automotive journalists. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
Mercedes Benz sold a record 142,000 Sprinters globally during the first nine months of this year. What do you see ahead for the U.S.?
In the United States, demand for large vans is likely to remain stable. We are in good shape. 2018 is the perfect starting point for our all-new Sprinter. When we came over to the U.S. with the Sprinter within the Mercedes-Benz brand back in 2010, we already thought that the European kind of style, the European technology, would become the mainstream there.
You have talked a lot about making the cargo van more connected, more digital so that fleet managers will be able to better plan routes, avoid traffic and stay on top of deliveries. You have also demonstrated autonomous loading and the use of delivery drones. When will we see this in the U.S.?
We are still planning pilot programs with our American customers. I'm quite sure that we will see next year and in 2019 the first setups with these technologies. Think about the carpool management. But when we were talking about the cyborg robots or drones this will take a while because we have to get free of some regulations first. Already in 2017 we flew with the drones in Switzerland and Zurich. We got some very good experience for how that works and how the setup can be a kind of efficiency booster in specific circumstances.
What problems are you trying to solve with this technology?
We hear from the big e-Commerce companies that their biggest fear is that there is not enough capacity to deliver all the parcels to the customers. We will be prepared for when the regulators have things cleared to offer customers technologies that go beyond just the van. You never know which kind of idea will make the big step forward. We want to use technology to increase the efficiency per route to open up the delivery of more parcels in a certain timeframe.
The future looks quite bright for our business because e-Commerce will grow, and grow even faster than it is today. That opens up a lot of opportunity.
What is the timeline for electric cargo vans?
We will start with eVito in Europe next year. [The Vito is sold as the Metris in the U.S.] Then we will go into the market with the eSprinter. There is demand in Germany especially, but it is also growing in Europe. We will launch it in Europe because it looks like there may come a time when vans with diesel engines can no longer drive into the inner circles of the city. You never know what the politicians will decide. We will see, but we are prepared. We have the technology for the American market. It's just a question of demand. We have started the first discussions, but it needs to build a bit more.
Personally, I'm convinced that in some cities electric vans make a lot of sense. Take New York for example. That's a perfect kind of environment because you don't have to drive that many miles. For smaller cargo volumes and shorter distances in a city, the eMetris might be the first one to the U.S. market. We will see. But we can do both vans.
Why add a gasoline engine option to the 2019 Sprinter lineup in the U.S.?
Customers were asking, “Oh please I would like to have a gasoline choice,” and we take that very seriously. And a very efficient one will be available next year. I was a little bit surprised, to be honest, because we thought the diesel engine was the most efficient choice, but OK, this is what the customers want.
How's that construction going for the new U.S. factory?
They are really working hard. They have finished the outside of the building for the body-in-white [vehicle frame] paint and assembly. The interior equipment is just on the way. As you can imagine, the paint shop is huge. They have made very good progress. I will be there in February, and I hope they will be coming to the end around that time. We will have plenty of time to produce the first of what we would call Sprinter production pilots.