Mercedes-Benz will soon start handing over its latest fuel-cell electric car to fleet customers to keep a toe-hold in a promising technology that’s been hampered by the difficulties of storing and refueling hydrogen.
The Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell model combines a fuel cell with a battery that can be charged via a wall socket, easing driver concerns about refueling. For now, the manufacturer will rent out the vehicles at €799 a month ($917), with drivers returning the car at the end of the full-service contract. The real-world test will help refine the technology, Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler said.
“Regarding costs and standardization, we haven’t reached the goal yet, but we’re heading in the right direction,” Juergen Schenk, the head of Mercedes-Benz electric-drive system integration, told reporters in Stuttgart this week. “Fuel cells will see a breakthrough - whether that’s going to be in cars, vans or buses remains to be seen.”
Fuel-cell technology, which emits only water vapor in cars, has struggled to gain traction because of high costs, complex storage of hydrogen and a lack of infrastructure. Toyota Motor Corp, the main proponent for hydrogen cars, and Hyundai Motor Co both offer vehicles commercially. Toyota’s home country of Japan is investing heavily in building hydrogen-fueling infrastructure as it prepares to showcase the technology at the 2020 Olympic Games.
Other carmakers like BMW are working on prototypes that could offer better driving ranges for larger electric vehicles. Volkswagen’s Audi brand is considering a small-scale production of fuel cell cars in 2020.
Infrastructure in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, remains patchy. A joint venture dubbed H2 Mobility, which includes Daimler, Linde, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, plans to have around 100 hydrogen fueling stations across the country by next year. That number could roughly quadruple by 2023, according to Daimler.
Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity through a reaction of hydrogen with oxygen or another oxidising agent. Mercedes’s model, with a driving range of 478 km (297 miles) for fuel cell and battery, takes about three minutes to replenish the tank.
Mercedes-Benz last month unveiled the brand’s first all-electric vehicle, the EQC crossover, as part of a push to roll out ten purely battery-powered vehicles by 2022. The division expects all-electric cars to account for between 15% and 25% of global deliveries by 2025.
While battery-electric or fuel-cell cars didn’t emit any emissions on the road, it’s another story during their manufacture, Schenk said. Energy demands for production of cars with fuel cells or high-voltage batteries trigger significantly higher emissions of carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate-warming, he said. During the life cycle on the road, plug-in hybrids can save emissions of as much as 55% compared to combustion engines, even if the electricity for charging the battery doesn’t come from renewable energy sources.
“That’s reason enough for us to believe that this technology will have a long future,” Schenk said.