By Joseph White
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG is developing plans to produce a family of new battery-powered luxury vehicles, the automaker's research chief said.
Mercedes also could use software updates to extend the hands-free driving range of its new Mercedes-Benz E-class, which launches later this year, depending on testing underway in Nevada and elsewhere, the automaker's head of research, Thomas Weber, said in an interview late Wednesday on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show.
Mercedes, like its German luxury car rivals, has been stung as Silicon Valley electric vehicle upstart Tesla Motors Inc has drawn attention from affluent consumers for high- performance, zero-emission vehicles that are regularly endowed with new functions, including a hands-free highway driving feature, using over-the-air updates.
Daimler sold a small stake it held in Tesla in 2014. "We are competitors," Weber said.
Weber said Mercedes' plans to add electric vehicles would complement plug-in hybrid versions of its standard cars. The electric vehicle architecture it is developing would "be as flexible as possible" to allow development of different types of luxury vehicles.
"It's not for small cars," Weber said, and the new electric vehicles "will come soon."
He said Mercedes will not use any technology gleaned from the former Tesla relationship.
Weber indicated Mercedes plans to sell electric vehicles in high volume. "We need more than only one battery factory," he said.
Other established automakers, including Volkswagen AG and GM, are working on new vehicles designed from the ground up to run on batteries, moving away from the prior strategy of converting gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles.
Mercedes also is considering software updates that would allow the new E-Class, which will be unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show on Sunday, to drive itself for longer distances on marked highways and in stop-and-go traffic.
The car will launch with a system that allows hands-free operation for only about a minute, Weber said, though he added that Mercedes could use software updates to "stretch the limit a little bit."
The new E-Class, a core model for Mercedes sales worldwide, will offer driver assistance features such as piloted highway driving, automatic evasive steering and a system that automatically matches the legal speed limit, Weber said.
Mercedes has a "long-term vision" of enabling over-the-air upgrades on its vehicles, but Weber said it will update safety systems only at dealerships for some time.
(Reporting by Joe White; Editing by Dan Grebler)