Mercedes-Benz announced Wednesday that it is launching a new brand for electric vehicles. It’s called EQ.
And one of the first vehicles the new brand will offer is the GLC F-Cell, a midsize SUV that’s a plug-in electric hybrid with a twist. It runs on gaseous hydrogen as well as batteries that are recharged externally with a plug.
Operating on hydrogen, the car has a 300-mile range. Driving on battery power alone it travels 30 miles.
“Today, there are two different ways to do zero emissions — battery electric or fuel cell,” said Rosario Berretta, fuel cell development manager for Mercedes-Benz.
Both have advantages and disadvantages.
The fuel cell “offers freedom to refuel the car in three minutes,” Berretta said. But the fueling infrastructure still needs building. Even in California, where the vast majority of hydrogen stations in the U.S. exist, there are only about 30 hydrogen fueling stations.
The source of that hydrogen, most of which is currently made from natural gas, also needs to be switched to renewable sources, he said.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of cost. Mercedes hasn’t yet set a price for its GLC F-Cell, and it will not sell the vehicle through traditional retail channels.
“It’s just for fleet,” Berretta said, adding that likely customers would be government and business entities.
Mercedes will not offer a sedan version because it would carry too high a price tag, he said. “We’re not earning money with this. If you would try to offer [the F-Cell] for money to develop this technology, it’s going to be too expensive
Battery-electric vehicles have their challenges as well.
“Cost-wise, the battery has much more potential to be handed over to customers,” Berretta said. But there are issues with recharge times, which are significantly slower than refueling hydrogen.
The GLC will be the first car from Mercedes to be offered with a traditional internal combustion engine and all the alternative powertrains currently on the market, including a plug-in hybrid using gasoline, a pure battery electric and the F-Cell, which will be available in early 2019.
The GLC F-Cell is an outgrowth of its B Class F-Cell — a compact hatchback that was only available for lease in Germany and California. The “demonstration program” was operated for more than seven years with 200 cars, allowing Mercedes to “collect a lot of data and validate it for the next-generation fuel cell car,” Berretta said.
Mercedes decided to use the GLC for its plug-in hydrogen fuel cell vehicle because it’s one of the company’s best-selling models and also “offers the great possibility to integrate the fuel cell.”
The fuel cell is located under the GLC’s hood, in the place where an internal combustion engine would sit. The hydrogen tank is placed where the driveshaft is normally situated, and the batteries are located behind the rear axle, with the electric motor situated in between.
How fuel cell technology will evolve, Berretta said, “depends not only on Daimler. It depends on the cost of the infrastructure. The supplier market also needs to be involved to bring the costs down, so it depends on the different car manufacturers which way we are going in the future.”
At present, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai offer hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in the U.S. Automakers’ commitment to hydrogen “is not comparable to their commitment towards battery-electric cars,” Berretta said.