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

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Rick Danger

    Wow. A ray of sense works its way into the coal mine of automaker consciousness.

    • Steve Hanley

      Economics is economics. H2 just does not make economic sense.

  • Joe Viocoe

    This is what Elon Musk referred to as, ” it will become obvious to everyone eventually “

    • 😀

    • Hydrogen First

      and without cherry picking –

      Mercedes development engineer Christian Frueh says that the proliferation of electric vehicles may not be as widespread as some people expect.
      “There is still enough rest of the world where you just cannot imagine how you’re going to use an electric car,” he says.
      “Australia is a good example – it may be difficult, for the range and for the safety.”

      It becomes obvious.

      • Joe Viocoe

        Everywhere that’s horrible for an electric vehicle, is also even worse for a hydrogen electric vehicle.

        • Hydrogen First

          What he meant the longer range the safer and a hydrogen vehicle has a longer range.

          • Joe Viocoe

            I know what you meant

      • James Rowland

        Well, he’s wrong.

        HFCVs and BEVs are both dependent on infrastructure for long-range driving (as are ICEVs.) The difference is that the infrastructure for widespread production and distribution of electricity already exists; it is typically only a matter of connecting fast DC chargers to the existing grid to enable travelling distances beyond what any sane person would want to.

        As for locations too remote for economic grid access, distributed generation with p.v. and battery arrays is already taking bites out of that market, and getting more competitive every year. There are no cases where using that energy to generate hydrogen works out better than using it directly in a BEV.

        Hydrogen doesn’t have a safety advantage either: HFCVs essentially are electric vehicles, with all the inherent hazards of heavy HVDC circuits and (albeit smaller) batteries, plus the additional risks from handling a highly compressed, highly flammable gas that likes to diffuse through many solid materials and can also embrittle them.

        Those same qualities also make distributing and storing hydrogen a pain in the arse. From an engineering perspective, it’s awful stuff to work with.

        Then there’s the problem of getting hydrogen, and there’s essentially only two ways. Even at their theoretical best case, they’re both worse than what we’re already doing with EVs.

        No, while there are sane uses of hydrogen fuel cells, personal transport isn’t one of them. In this application, the technology is already obsolete and was never the best option.

        • Hydrogen First

          >The difference is that the infrastructure for widespread production and distribution of electricity already exists
          The current infrustructure was not designed for huge domestic power consumption, especially for fast charging. Just imagine a 15 storage appartment building where thousands of people live with several hundreds cars. It is already there. And then there is a block of such buildings. The power consumption of each flat is rationed say to 3kW and the whole local grid and its supplying substations are just rated for that power. It would take a lot of resources to just rebuild it not taking into account that nobody is gonna do it in the first place. It looks like you all never were outside of your neighbourhood let alone country and don’t even know how people live in different places and their ways of life, engineering, urban planning, etc. In some cases upgrades of up to 9 m euro were neccessary and electric company just refused to do it just for one charging lot. BEVs won’t just fit all places. Nobody was ever trying to have a silver bullet. Even with ICE it is gas vs diesel vs ethanol in some countries. Nobody says it is only nuclear or gas or solar or wind or coal. You just can sit and wait that BEVs will be the only vehicles which ain’t gonna happen.

          • James Rowland

            The grid wasn’t designed for everyone buying cheap air conditioning either, but it somehow coped after some upgrades. Long-term, it has been an opportunity for utilities to sell more of their product.

            EV charging will likely be a smaller change in demand than that was.

            It’s also, in this connected world we’ve created, an opportunity to have loads scheduled for when it’s convenient for grid operators. Tesla vehicles, for example, are literally one OTA firmware update from being able to do this; flattening the demand curve overnight is a service grid operators will pay for, or at least offer discounts on the energy.

            However, there’s one thing I’ve already mentioned that you’ve been ignoring entirely in your rebuttal: making clean hydrogen will realisticly require around three times more electricity, even with perfected technology.

            So, any argument you make about EVs being an unreasonable demand on the grid is also a three times stronger argument against hydrogen electrolysis.

  • Ed

    This is very good news. Even if we forget about the terrible efficiency of hydrogen production, the packaging issues with hydrogen are dreadful compared to battery electric vehicles. Thank you, Mercedes, for ejecting common sense into this discussion. If California will now dial back on their enthusiasm for fuel cells, we can probably put hydrogen energy storage to bed.

  • Epicurus

    When will Toyota give up?

    • James Rowland

      When the people who spent their careers on this folly retire or get fired.

      • Epicurus

        That should have occurred to me. Having worked for a giant multi-national, I think it will most likely be retirement. It’s amazing how much stupidity is tolerated–even rewarded–in big corporations.

  • James Rowland


    I guess they finally noticed that the infrastructure needed to kick the hydrogen economy’s arse already exists. Now, let’s get on with cleaning the grid up and making a lot of EVs.