Bernard Robertson, Auburn Hills' tech top dog, interprets DC's technology mantra

Bernard Robertson, DaimlerChrysler AG senior vice president of engineering technology, in April assumed the duties of Chris Theodore, senior vice president of platform engineering. Mr. Robertson now is DC's senior technical executive in the U.S. He speaks with WAW about the effect of executives leaving the company, how the formerly separate companies will apportion technology development - and the plan to share the results.

Bernard Robertson now sits on the hot seat. As the top technology/engineering executive in the U.S., he has to explain how the former Chrysler Corp.'s engineering activities will emerge from the perceived shadow of technical giant Daimler-Benz.

The job didn't get easier when an early version of the new DaimlerChrysler's so-called "brand bible" insinuated that Mercedes-brand vehicles would enjoy a dominant position in the who-gets-new-technology queue - and dealt the former Chrysler a figurative slap by noting that any future Mercedes minivan would not employ a Chrysler platform. Immediate tension.

"One of the things that we are all committed to do is to integrate the technological capability of the company," explains Mr. Robertson. "Anyone you talk to will tell you that it is going very well. I mean, we have great relationships with our counterparts and a lot of mutual respect."

Don't over-emphasize the "brand bible," he implores. "What you've heard about was the 'first cut' of the brand bible; that's more a case of our technological deployment and individual features. Everybody was dedicated to not screwing up the brands. The first couple of shots at drawing up the draft bible, I think, grew out of that. I honestly think we are through that now."

Once the merger's brand-awareness tension abated, a certain common-sense approach about technology flow prevailed, says Mr. Robertson.

"The realities in this business are that you can't take the technologies that are in the Mercedes S-Class and put them in a Plymouth and still sell it for $14,995. That (technology progression) will be a natural, just like antilock brakes: When introduced in the U.S. they were a $1,000 option, then it was $800, $600, $400. . . Now it's standard on a lot of vehicles," he says.

The economics of the auto industry dictate which brands will get technology features first, Mr. Robertson adds. It has little to do with anybody's notion of which of DaimlerChrysler's brands is more "important." He claims too much emphasis is being put on features. Conversely, there are some technologies that can and will be developed - and implemented - for all brands equally.

"One of the great things about this merger is (how the larger company will deal with) less-obvious technicalogical capabilities. The challenges of regulatory safety, emissions and so on. Everybody faces these to the same extent. The better you can leverage knowledge and technology effectively (in these areas), the better off you are."

Mr. Robertson cites diesel development: "If we can, by pooling our efforts, do the job of improving the diesel, particularly the emissions, then apply it to whichever products we are building, then obviously it is to our advantage. And there's a lot more (diesel development knowledge) in Stuttgart than there is here - and that's a tremendous opportunity for us."

Technology, he adds, is unlikely to differ much in things like air bags and occupant protection. "These are technical tasks," he asserts. "My expectation is that we will employ that sort of technical capability across all of our vehicles without it necessarily being a feature that you read about in the brochure."

Fine, but does Chrysler bring anything to the party for Mercedes? After all, the street between "equals" should run both ways.

"We've done a lot more work on large, injection-molded composites than has Stuttgart. They were talking to our partners about the technology well before the merger because we had done so much work on it.

"And we've done more work on electric vehicles, partly because we were one of the seven manufacturers affected," by California's original 1998 zero-emissions vehicle mandate, he adds.

Platform sharing, Mr. Robertson says, will be essential to the company, but badge-engineering most certainly will not.

"We are impressed with what Volkswagen and Audi have done (with platform sharing), and I think the whole world is saying, 'How can you do that?' I think where it makes sense for us, we'll do that. But I don't want that to be confused with badge-engineering or taking a product and saying that with this grille it's a Chrysler and with this one it's a Mercedes.

"We'll share when it makes sense," he asserts.

Mr. Robertson dismisses the minivan-sharing adventure as an early expression of the desire "not to do something stupid. We are not going to destroy some of the greatest assets we have, which are the strong brand names like Mercedes, Chrysler, Jeep, which stand for different things."

And what about major components like engines and transmissions? Will brands retain their own core components?

"Well, transmissions is a good one," Mr. Robertson says. "Our feeling is that in transmissions, you can cross different brands. The public's perception is of the total vehicle package. Right now, New Venture Gear makes our transfer cases and they make General Motors transfer cases. I doubt that anybody buys one vehicle instead of another because of its transfer case. And I think we've made it clear that we think there's a good chance we'll be using the same diesel engines."

About the question of morale (with high-ranking executives leaving the company), he concludes: "I'd say the 'carrier wave' in the technical community is very positive."

Mr. Robertson obviously believes DaimlerChrysler's employee-retention situation has been examined under far-too-powerful a microscope: every company has employees that come, go, are satisfied, are disgruntled - for endless reasons.

"I'd have to say that I'm kind of surprised no one has looked at Ford Motor Co. What's the morale at Ford when Jacques Nasser goes public and says, 'I want the very best people for every job - and for that reason I'm going to go out and hire a bunch of people from outside. A couple from here, a couple from there.'

"Everyone reacts in a different way to that sort of thing," Mr. Robertson says.

He believes that in a company the size of DaimlerChrysler, the comings and goings of lone executives may be overrated:

"A long time ago, I went to work in an assembly plant. It was a fascinating part of my career. If you wanted something built, you went to one of the (assembly workers) who made things happen. That's where the real power in the enterprise is."