Exclusive Mercedes Interview: Electric Cars Are Not the Silver Bullet

By · October 07, 2010

Mercedes F-Cell

The B-Class F-CELL hydrogen fuel cell car is expected to become available in late 2010 in select markets in limited quantities. Larger volume production is planned to begin in 2013 - 2015.

Daimler, the maker of Mercedes Benz vehicles, this week launched a campaign to inform its customers and dealers about alternative drivetrain vehicles. On the new Mercedes “Thinking Green” website, the company describes the advantages and disadvantages of the various technologies, including hybrids, clean diesel, flex fuel and fuel cells. According to Sascha Simon, Mercedes-Benz department manager of advanced products planning, this effort grew out research showing that most people who are interested in purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle are confused about which one to pick.

It’s true that Daimler offers the most diverse portfolio of drivetrains of any luxury automaker. But in my conversation with Sascha, I quickly discovered that Daimler’s campaign is also an effort to deal with the current wave of enthusiasm about electric cars. (Note: Daimler plans to produce an electric version of the Smart ForTwo).

“There’s a lot of hype about battery electric vehicles and plug-in cars. I believe both have their place, but they are not the only solution,” Sascha told me. “What we want to convey is that there’s not a silver bullet that will make our [environmental] problems go away.” He repeatedly pointed to Daimler’s 2 billion Euro investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology. “We believe it’s the only technology that’s able to completely eliminate the need for carbon fuels.”

Here’s an edited excerpt from our interview.

Brad Berman: Do you believe that hydrogen fuel cells are on equal footing with EVs as an option for consumers?

Sascha Simon: We’re going to roll out our first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in California. We have a website where customers can apply for this vehicle. This will be the first electric vehicle that never needs to be plugged in, and doesn’t come with built-in range anxiety. It’s a really great vehicle. It’s a full electric vehicle without the disadvantages of batteries.

So, is it Daimler’s position that hydrogen vehicles are a better option than EVs because of battery limitations?

There is no silver bullet. The battery electric vehicles are great vehicles if you have no problems with range and you just want to haul people around. But if you live in suburbia and your commute is 60 to 70 miles, or if you have a need to haul heavy gear, then the battery electric vehicle is the wrong choice.

The electric grid in this country was designed in 1919, and is by far not capable of providing enough electricity. Even if only 10 percent of vehicles were battery electric , it wouldn’t work. I don’t say battery electric vehicles are a bad idea. I just want to be clear about what it’s capable of delivering to customers. We owe this to customers.

What range can people live with?

If you live in suburbia, you need a larger range. If you live in the middle of Los Angeles or Manhattan or Washington DC, you can probably get by with range that today’s battery electric are able to supply. But if you live in the middle of Kansas, or in Colorado or anywhere in the countryside where your next supermarket is 40 or 50 miles away, you have a problem.

What do you say to the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. population drives less than 40 miles per day, and for most Americans, a vehicle with 100 miles range is more than enough?

That’s a perfect case for an electric vehicle that can either run on batteries, or a hydrogen fuel cell stack or range extender.

What’s the best use case for a conventional hybrid car?

A lot of stop and go, any suburban area where the commute is marked by sitting on the highway in traffic. If I have to run long distances, or pull a boat, then clean diesel is the technology of choice. At Daimler, we have invested in all of these technologies. We don’t have to invent them. They’re here, and we’re in the process of either bringing them to market or they are already on the market.

I agree that educating the public about the diversity of choices is a good idea. Yet, it does seems that Daimler is pushing hydrogen fuel cells and clean diesel more than hybrid and electric.

We don’t believe in a one size fits all approach. Also, all of these technologies build one upon another. To get the most efficient internal combustion engine, we had to go the diesel route. To make that even more efficient, you have to add an additional drivetrain, an electric drivetrain. You end up with a hybrid. With a hybrid, you learn to electrify the vehicles, and get an electric drivetrain. That, in turn, provides learning, research, and experience on how to build an all-electric drivetrain. And that all-electric drivetrain eventually will be the engine of the future.

I think everyone agrees that the end game is electric mobility. Then you consider the different means for getting the electricity in the car. Or generating the electricity in the car. Then, you look at the mix of battery electric vehicles for urban environments, and fuel cell vehicles for larger vehicle platforms, and maybe still hybrid as long as carbon fuels are affordable and available. The natural gas vehicles help you learn how to handle gaseous fuels in a car environment that’s necessary to move into a hydrogen world. So, all these different building blocks, little LEGO blocks, move us to a carbon-free transportation infrastructure.

I don’t want to argue with proponents of battery electric, versus hydrogen electric versus range-extender electric because, in the end, we need them all. They all have their role. Is everyone going to want to wait one hour, two hour, three hours for a charging cycle? I don’t know. Is everyone willing to give up on a large car to drive small city cars? I don’t know. I believe this is a mixed bag.

Have you been surprised by how fast EVs have risen as a option in recent years?

We like that EVs have become acceptable. There was a hiatus that EVs had to take due to low gas prices. So, they’re coming back. We’re not surprised they’re here. What we’re worried about is that sky-high expectations from consumers might not be fulfilled by the battery electric vehicle, which is why we are trying to educate about the advantages and disadvantages of the different drivetrains.

The worst that could happen is that we’re all gearing up for the EV wave and then most customers get disappointed when they can’t get 80 miles out of them or 60 miles, depending on the climate, and they don’t really like the idea of charging for hours. Then, all of a sudden, as soon as they come to fame, they lose their appeal right away. That shouldn’t happen.


· KeiJidosha (not verified) · 7 years ago

Drove the F-Cell at the Alt Car expo. And liked it. My question is what is the efficiency from "Well to Wheel" to produce, store, distribute, and consume the hydrogen? How does it compare to an EV like the LEAF?

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

The Mercedes attitude is dispectable; they are again trying to present things like if all solutions where equivalent while they are not. They present the different alternatives as if they where all as valid just to divert people from the one and only obvious solution. They know that the flex-fuel plug-in hybrid has what takes to satisfy everybody but they keep on presenting dead ends like hydrogen as being as good. In the same time, should we expect anything different then this anti flex fuel plug-in hybrid propaganda from a company owned by Deutsche Bank, itself owned by the oilies. They killed the swatch mobile, and they will keep on fighting against anything that threatens their oilies interest.

· BobW (not verified) · 7 years ago

The biggest problem with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is the fact that there are no hydrogen wells. Currently most hydrogen is produced as a byproduct of refining oil into gasoline.

Cracking water into H2 and O by electrolysis is exteremely energy inefficient. It's much more efficient to charge batteries with the same electricity.

Fuel cells are extremely expensive. That makes fuel cell cars expensive.

Hydrogen is extremely difficult to handle and store. Hydrogen tends to leak out of its containter. It has to be compressed and/or liquified in order to fit any reasonable amount into any reasonable space.

The only advantage over battery electric is the relatively quick refill times.

· Samie (not verified) · 7 years ago

Look, it comes down to marketing and Daimler's short-term portfolio that's it, nothing more. The same strategy presented by Sascha I have read a billion times in the last ten years by auto executives.

Let consumers decide without fearful tactics or uneducated claims against EV's and we will see which auto-manufactures will come out on top, and which will struggle to adopt and adjust to newer electrification technologies.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

RE: "The electric grid in this country was designed in 1919, and is by far not capable of providing enough electricity. "

Um, this isn't true.

· Eric Peterson (not verified) · 7 years ago

It is a horse race and Mercedes has a large stable of horses. They don't have all the horses in the race. New developments are happening in batteries, fuel cells, hydrogen production, ultra capacitors, motor controls, and even internal combustion engines.

What is fairly clear is that the winning horse will have an electric drive for a heart. It won't be a hay burner in the traditional sense but it may derive some of its electron fuel from biomass. Along with hydro, fossil, solar, wind, wave, geothermal or ?.

The big question is how are you going to provide the vehicle with electrons onboard in such quantities as to do the job of getting you from point A to point B in t time.

Our now ancient electric grid is getting smarter and more efficient all the time and is also expanding all the time. Transferring energy by wire has proven to be more efficient than tanker trucks and allows for many more outlets for distribution of that power. Electric power by wire also allows for many more sources to be included in the distribution of that power.

Oil companies are not pleased with the prospects of losing control of vehicle propulsion to so many possible sources of power. Strangely the electric grid operators are not too keen on losing control of the sources of electric power either.

Electricity is the future of vehicle propulsion, who provides the electrons in the future is the major debate. Will it be oil companies providing liquid fuel for hybrids or will they provide hydrogen for fuel cells? Will it be electric companies with hydro, coal, natural gas to charge batteries or to make hydrogen from electrolysis for fuel cells? Will it be wind farm operators making hydrogen? How about roof top solar panels that charge batteries?

The race is on and the bets are coming in fast and furious. The winning purse is very large and may be split between the top horses in the race instead of winner takes all.

We shall see. For now the race is rather fun to watch.

· · 7 years ago

Hmm, lets look at what Daimler has done: They took the rocket-ship prototype electric Smart car that Tesla built for them (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/ff_tesla/all/1). They named it after a disease that some find to be an embarrassing indication of their manliness (SmartED). Then they reduced the performance of the production version to below that of their ICE version to where it can't even safely run on a freeway (62 mph top speed).
I can't really expect much from these clowns. Except, of course trying to find any way possible to torpedo the EV in favor of the ICE which they know well.
I don't know what their internal motivations are but clearly, the corporate group-think is that EVs are bad and must be prevented.
I guess the top of the automotive pedestal that used to be occupied by Mercedes will hold either Tesla (http://www.teslamotors.com/models/gallery) or Fisker (http://www.fiskerautomotive.com/#!/home/photography).
I don't think I'll miss the old Germans though.

· hsr0601 (not verified) · 7 years ago

Re : they don’t really like the idea of charging for hours

Japan has already developed the world best quick charger.

· · 7 years ago

You're right. The US had quick charging back in the late '90's it was killed along with the '90's EVs.
This is just a convenient excuse to not build EVs.
I don't recall the exact date but AeroVironment successfully drove an EV over 1000 miles in a day using fast charging back in the '90's. They also powered a fleet of shuttles for the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Fast charging is old news. It just needs to actually be deployed.

· Mercy Vetsel (not verified) · 7 years ago

Yes, those evil EV-haters at Daimler!

Also, Toyota, Honda, GM and Hyundai. Apparently their desire to lose money is so strong that they're willing to allow Nissan to eat their lunch with the Leaf.

Or maybe they are just ignorant, unable to see the beauty of lugging around a massive trailer full of batteries and paying the equivalent of $15/gallon to propel you less far than a gasoline engine.

I've done the math on how battery prices translate into $15/gallon, but it's not really required to see that plug-in BEV's are a disaster. Just some Econ 101. Look at places like Holland where gasoline costs $9/gallon.

Nearly every new car sold in those places must be a BEV, right?

Wrong. They buy ridiculously tiny cars and don't drive as much. These countries show us that even if we more doubled the price of fuel, BEV's still wouldn't make economic sense and that the equivalent price of battery cars is over $9/gallon.

Well, I suppose it's also possible that they're also BEV-haters just like Daimler and willing to suffer a financial loss to prop up the ICE.

Oh, and let's suppose gasoline prices were $9 in the U.S. What would happen? The fury from consumers would be so intense that politicians would stop piddling around with battery cars and start producing gasoline from coal while doing everything possible to facilitate more domestic gas and oil development.

If the DOE is to be believed, fuel cell system cost and durability, the key obstacles to producing Fuel Cell vehicles that are cost competitive with gasoline, have been mostly solved. That's why so many car companies are ramping up for large scale production even absent the obscene levels of subsidies taxpayers lavish on battery cars.

This ramp up is in stark contrast to batteries for pure electric vehicles, which the public is slowly beginning to recognize as the ethanol-style taxpayer-funded boondoggle that it is.


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