Bentley U.S. Boss: 'Haven't Had a Customer' Say They Need a Self-Driving Bentley

Electrification, not automation, will define the Bentley of tomorrow, American boss Mark Del Rosso says. 

Bentley

The future of Bentley may someday include self-driving gran turismos capable of crossing continents while their owners nap away in plush leather seats—but don't expect it anytime soon. 

That's the word on high from Mark Del Rosso, who's been serving as president and CEO of Bentley Motors, Inc.—the branch of the esteemed British luxury automaker in charge of North and South American ops—since June 1st, when he moved over from his old job as executive vice-president at Audi of America. When we meet to walk the floor at the L.A. Auto Show, Del Rosso—who vaguely resembles Mark Ruffalo's well-tanned older brother—shows up impeccably dressed; it would take a fashion plate like deputy editor Josh Condon to pick out all the nuances of his outfit, but even I can appreciate the monogrammed cuffs of his shirt. He is, as a friend of mine once put it, a pro-fresh-ional. 

He's also more than happy to talk about the future of the company he now plays a role in running...especially when it comes to the inevitable discussion of self-driving cars. 

"I haven't had a customer" talk about autonomy as a must-have, Del Rosso says. “It has to become a want and a need and a desire” for consumers before Bentley would think about adding self-driving features to its vehicles, he adds; besides, he says, there's still a lot to do in terms of developing autonomous technology. For now, the luxury brand is happy to sit back and let its corporate cousins at Audi lead the VW Group's march into the robot-driven tomorrow.

Instead, Bentley has its sights trained on a future filled with cars that plug into wall sockets and deliver the effortless rush of electric motor torque

“We want to be the leader in luxury electrification,” he says. “It’s not a matter of if, but when. But…it has to be a Bentley.”

Bentley

The electrically-powered Bentley EXP 12 Speed 6E concept

The first Bentley to benefit from an electric motor and a big battery pack—a plug-in hybrid version of the Bentayga crossover—is coming down the pike soon enough, Del Rosso says. Beyond that, however, the company is still debating whether other future electric models will be EV versions of internal combustion models, or standalone vehicles à la Porsche's Mission E

"Ultimately, it comes down to what the customer wants," he says. 

While those electric plans are just beginning to bloom, the company is already exploring forward-facing forms of, as the buzzword goes, "mobility."

“We want to lead on luxury as mobility," he says. "It's beyond the car. It’s the services. But it all has to be wrapped in this luxury experience that Bentley is known for." 

He cites the Bentley on Demand program the company is running, in which existing Bentley owners can request to use loaner Mulsannes, Bentaygas, and the like for up to five days when traveling to other cities with a few taps on an iPhone app. (Don't ask how much it costs.) The company is even testing out a program that lets the well-to-do have their cars topped off with gasoline at home, he said, thus suggesting at least one person in Crewe is a fan of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 

But while Bentley may not have any plans to follow close in Waymo's tire tracks anytime soon, Del Rosso stressed that could change down the line, depending on the demands of its buyers. Catering to its clients is largely what makes the super-exclusive carmaker tick. These days, that comes in the form of trying to find ways to make buying and owning a Bentley special—say, inviting prospective customers to dinner, rather than pressuring them into a purchase over vending machine coffee. But luxury car buyers are fickle, so who knows what they might want a decade from now?

“If and when [a self-driving Bentley] becomes something the consumer wants," Del Rosso says, "I’m sure we’ll find a way to make it possible.”