Mercedes Says It Will Not Pursue Fuel Cell Development For Its Cars

Shortly after saying it was joining with Toyota and BMW in a $10 billion campaign to develop fuel cell technology for automobiles, Mercedes has reversed course. Speaking to an automotive conference in Stuttgart on Monday, Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche announced that fuel cells will no longer be part of the company’s long-term focus. It’s hard to say what may have happened to change his mind in just 6 short weeks.

Mercedes fuel cell plug-in hybrid

Zetsche claims the edge that fuel cell technology once had over battery electric cars a few years ago — longer range and shorter refueling times — is dwindling. Today, advances in battery technology have cut into hydrogen’s competitive lead, especially when price is taken into account. “Battery costs are declining rapidly whereas hydrogen production remains very costly,” Zetsche said. (Plus, electric cars can be charged out home or work, whereas hydrogen fuel cell cars need an entirely new fueling infrastructure built across the world, and a very costly and sensitive one at that.)

Mercedes still plans to begin production of a fuel cell–powered GLC SUV by the end of this year or in early 2018, but that car is intended primarily for fleet operators who are likely to have their own hydrogen refueling rigs available. Zetsche says the fuel cell remains an “interesting solution,” but will not be commercially viable until the price of hydrogen falls due to the widespread availability of cheap renewable energy.

Electric car pioneer Elon Musk has always had harsh words for fuel cells. He has variously referred to them as “fool cells” and on one notable occasion, “bullshit.” Speaking to the Automotive News World Congress two years ago, he had this to say:

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. If you get that hydrogen from water — so you’re splitting H20 — electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process. If you took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly — compared to trying to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it), and then put it in a car and run a fuel cell — it is about half the efficiency, it’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense.”

Apparently, Dieter Zetsche now agrees with the redoubtable Mr. Musk. Mercedes announced this week that it is investing $10 billion to move up production of 10 new electric car models from 2025 to 2022.

Source: | Hat tip to Leif Hansen

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.