1000 Mile Test Drive: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Mercedes-Benz

Fuel cell electric vehicles have been the topic of several lively discussions over at CleanTechnica, but while they’ve been busy talking, Mercedes-Benz has been walking the walk, or driving the drive as the case may be. Earlier this week the company pitched its forthcoming 2017 hydrogen fuel cell EVs with a splashy publicity tour in California, involving almost 1,000 miles split among five of the company’s B-Class F-CELL vehicles over a three-day period.


Enough About the Hydrogen Infrastructure

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL

For those of you new to the topic, an FCEV is an all-electric vehicle but instead of getting its juice from electricity stored in a battery, it literally makes its own electricity on the fly, deploying the chemical reaction in a fuel cell.

The fuel of choice is hydrogen, and therein lies the problem. Until FCEV ownership reaches critical mass, there is little incentive to build hydrogen fuel stations, or to make room for them at existing gas stations. So, fuel availability is currently a big obstacle to FCEV ownership.

That’s similar to the dilemma faced by potential battery EV customers up until just a few years ago. However, while battery EV owners at least have the option of plugging in at home, FCEV owners are totally reliant on public fueling infrastructure (at least, for now they are).

That’s where California comes in. California is hot on the trail of any zero-emission vehicle it can lay its hands on, with the goal of reaching 87% saturation by mid-century. So, in addition to building up its battery EV charging network, the state is also building up its hydrogen fuel station infrastructure, partly with the help of auto industry stakeholders (and this one, too).

With that in mind, this week’s Mercedes-Benz publicity tour was just partly designed to leverage the B-Class F-CELL sedan, which readers of our sister site Gas2.org may recall from its introduction to the California zero-emission vehicle market back in 2010 when it was practically the only consumer model FCEV around.

The real point was to highlight the growing hydrogen fuel station infrastructure in California. The five F-CELLs were tasked with refueling only at public stations over the three-day trip between Los Angeles to San Francisco along the state’s “Hydrogen Highway” with stops at Burbank, Coalinga, West Sacramento, and Emeryville.

Though only 10 public fuel stations are currently available in California, the state has plans to co-fund at least 100 in the near future. The most recent hydrogen fuel station analysis (see page 31) indicates that the state is on track to achieve the 100-station mark by 2023, with about 50 expected by the end of 2016.

California hydrogen stations

Keep in mind that goal of 100 only includes public stations funded or co-funded by the state. California’s overall hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure includes nine or so non-public stations, and if you throw those into the mix, you’re looking at almost 60 stations either completed or in the pipeline, mainly distributed around the Bay Area and Los Angeles:

pending hydrogen fuel stations in California

Though that big blank space between Los Angeles and San Francisco may look intimidating, the F-CELL has a nominal range of about 190 miles that blows up to 250 miles with a high-pressure tank system, and the distance between the two cities is a little under 400 miles, so you could make it on one fill-up.

No discussion of FCEVs at CleanTechnica would be complete without our usual caveat — namely, that some industry observers are critical of fuel cell technology applied to personal mobility, and the use of hydrogen as a fuel is not particularly green or clean when that hydrogen is sourced from natural gas. On the other hand, the technology is catching up and renewable hydrogen is a thing. California’s hydrogen plan also calls for a measure of renewable hydrogen.


Fuel Cell Good, FutureVan Better

Vision Tokyo FCEV

Visually, the design of the F-CELL is deliberately pedestrian, perhaps because back in 2010 Mercedes-Benz was banking on a higher acceptance rate among early FCEV adopters in the US for a futuristically fueled vehicle that looks like practically any other car on the road.

Well, that was then; this is now, and the company appears to have thrown all caution to the wind. Check out the Mercedes-Benz blog for a sneak peek at the futuristically fueled and styled fuel cell minivan it envisions for the hydrogen-ready Japanese market:

That’s just the exterior, above. Do check out the blog for the crazy interior and some more dish on the concept, which includes autonomous driving as well as fuel cell power. Here’s just a taste: “>“In the heart of a hectic city, where traffic congestions last for hours and trains carry millions daily, the Mercedes-Benz Vision Tokyo comes as a chill-out space. The concept car is a tribute paid to the urban Generation Z, the young men of today, born in the era of the internet and new media. The car is converted from a simple way of getting around into a digital companion.”

We ladies can hardly wait for a futuristic FCEV to call our own, amirite?


Originally published by Cleantechnica.

Tina Casey

Tina writes frequently for CleanTechnica and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.