Mercedes-Benz rolls out fuel-cell SUV to tackle tech hurdles


FRANKFURT • 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 refuelling 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 refuelling. For now, the manufacturer will rent out the vehicles at €799 (RM3,806) a month, 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 AG said.

“Regarding costs and standardisation, 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.”

Deliveries will start at the end of this month in Germany, according to a Mercedes-Benz spokesman. The car will be offered in Japan at a later stage, he said.

Fuel-cell technology, which emits only water vapour 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- fuelling infrastructure as it prepares to showcase the technology at the 2020 Olympic Games.

Other carmakers like BMW AG are working on prototypes that could offer better driving ranges for larger electric vehicles (EVs). Volkswagen AG’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 AG, Royal Dutch Shell plc and Total SA, plans to have around 100 hydrogen fuelling 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-Benz’s model, with a driving range of 478km for fuel cell and battery, takes about three minutes to replenish the tank.

Mercedes-Benz last month unveiled the brand’s first all-EV, the EQC crossover, as part of a push to roll out 10 purely battery-powered vehicles by 2022. The division expects all-EVs 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.