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.

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