by Gregory Simpson

Mercedes-Benz enters battle for budget commuter market

Mercedes-Benz Bus & Coach Southern Africa have introduced a value for money OF-1723 bus chassis to challenge the highly competitive commuter segment. Road Ahead had a front row seat for the unveiling.

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Launched in tough economic times for both original equipment manufacturers and bus operators, the bus is designed to be fuel efficient and provide maximum uptime.

The bus considers the ergonomics of the driver and comes standard with power-assisted, tiltable and telescopic steering that enables easy manoeuvring. Driver fatigue is significantly reduced as the chassis offers a shorter turning circle and comfortable driving position.

Features such as the constant throttle valve engine brake and high boost pressure turbocharger further enhance fuel efficiency. All these characteristics have a direct impact on increasing the bus operator's profitability.

In addition, the chassis is equipped with an economical driveline and a steel suspension that is perfectly suited for southern African conditions. The offering only becomes more attractive, as it is driven by the proven Mercedes-Benz OM 906LA engine platform. The unit offers high engine power of 175kW (235HP) and a maximum engine torque of 850Nm.

I managed to take it for a spin in the car park at the launch, and it is easy to drive, with a great turning circle, plenty of power and most importantly, impressive brakes.

To find out more we caught up with Jasper Hafkamp, executive director of Daimler Trucks & Buses Southern Africa.

Are you settling into South Africa, almost a year in the country, what are your observations thus far?

Time is flying, it’s almost a year in South Africa and I can tell you I’m really enjoying it at the moment, settling in with the family. It’s a beautiful country from a private perspective and also from a business perspective. It’s a very challenging market, both the truck market and the bus market is fairly competitive with other brands in South Africa, and the Japanese, the Indian and all the European brands so I’m really enjoying it.

And this new bus we’re seeing here entering the lower end of the market, is that an area you want to take advantage of?

Yes, let’s say when I looked at the position of Mercedes Benz in the bus market in South Africa, we are very strong in the City Bus segment, but the commuter segment is quite an important segment of the market. We already have the 1726 in the commuter segment, but now introducing 1723 we have a very reliable bus, a very affordable bus so we are really conquering the commuter segment with this bus, and the organisation is behind it.

Who will be your key clients for this bus: schools and universities?

Exactly, it’s all the people that commute, so our customers that commute from one city to another city or from school to the rugby field and that kind of thing, this is the ideal bus to do that kind of job.

In terms of fuel, are you looking at fuel alternatives in the future, some of your buses run on gas already?

Mercedes Benz is investing in new technology on the truck side and the bus side, we have our project case at the moment, and it is what we call our Future Bus, that’s really about connecting buses autonomously. We are experimenting, we have pilots running around electrical buses we introduced in Jo’burg and the dual fuel buses, that’s our gas and diesel, so yes we have all kinds already available and others we are working on.

What is some of the feedback from the autonomous tests in Europe, are they going well?

Of course you need the right legislation, because officially you’re not allowed to drive without a driver, and that’s not the purpose of autonomous driving. It’s more that the driver is still there, but has some other responsibilities, for example, that the bus drives safely through the traffic. That’s the beauty and advantage of this autonomous driving project, but it’s still in the project phase, on the one hand it’s not science fiction, it’s already there, but it will take some years before we are really entering the market with autonomous driving.

Would you say autonomous vehicles should have their own roads, or can humans and computers really share the same space?

They will share the same space, with digitalisation our world is changing so quickly at the moment, we will see the same in automotive. If I look to the future and I look at a lot of the future investments of Daimler Trucks & Buses, I see a lot of digitalisation and that’s really our guidance for the future.

How have customers needs changed over the years?

Customers are changing and we have to adapt to that, and we have to provide them not only with the best bus, but also with the best services, like fleet board. We really support our customers in optimising fuel efficiency, optimising logistics, and that’s the advantage of having this digitalisation available.

As the leader of many divisions, how do you get the most out of your staff?

You have to motivate them and it’s about challenges – if you have challenges and you have success and you can motivate the people to give everything and to be creative and innovative in our market space, that’s important. It is of course about the best products, but I always say it’s at the end about the best people; they really make a difference in our market space.

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