It’s something that many in the electric car world aren’t happy talking about, but it’s a simple fact: if you happen to make regular long-distance trips — even in a long-range Tesla Model S or Tesla Model X — the time it takes to recharge your car has to be factored in to your journey time.
Of course, if you’re not behind the wheel driving, that extra time can be used in other ways, which is why experienced electric car owners don’t moan about the half hour it takes for their car to charge at a CHAdeMO, CCS, or Tesla Supercharger station. For them, it’s a chance to catch up with work, grab a bite to eat, take a power nap, or even do a little bit of shopping. Yet while most electric car owners don’t view time spent charging as being wasted, those who have yet to own an electric car often cite concerns about the extra time a trip will take due to wasted time at charging stations.
To date, the primary solution to that problem has been plug-in hybrids and range-extended electric vehicles: cars like the Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid and BMW i3 range-extended electric car. Combining an all-electric drivetrain with an internal combustion engine — either driving the wheels directly or connected to a generator to produce more power to send to the electric drivetrain — these vehicles allow owners to make use of their car’s all-electric, zero-emission capabilities around town, but then switch to fossil fuels for longer-distance trips, stopping in at a gas station for a quick five-minute top-up when needed. While it solves most range anxiety concerns and offers owners more flexibility however, plug-in hybrids aren’t zero emission.
Next year however, German automaker Mercedes-Benz will launch the world’s first plug-in hybrid SUV that will, at least theoretically, be capable of zero-emissions travel all the time. That’s because instead of an internal combustion engine supplementing the range of an on-board battery pack, Mercedes-Benz’s 2017 GLC F-Cell plug-in hybrid SUV will make use of a hydrogen fuel cell as its range-extender. The first? Although other companies (including Volkswagen) have proposed such a vehicle, the GLC F-Cell will be the first hydrogen plug-in hybrid to enter into production.
Announced this morning as part of a massive 71-page press briefing announcing Mercedes-Benz’s commitment to offering an electrified version of every single vehicle series it sells in the next few years, Mercedes-Benz says the all-new zero-emission SUV will combine a powerful electric drivetrain with a lithium-ion battery pack capable of storing “around 9 kilowatt-hours” of electricity to give around 31 miles of estimated range on the overly optimistic NEDC test cycle. Then, when the charge in the battery pack has been depleted, Mercedes-Benz says the GLC F-Cell will switch on its hydrogen fuel cell stack to provide additional range. Fuelled by around 4 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen stored in a pair of tanks under the rear load bay of the vehicle, total range is quoted as being 310 miles on the NEDC test cycle.
When it comes to refuelling, the battery pack can be refilled using a conventional domestic charging station in three to four hours, while Mercedes-Benz says refilling the twin hydrogen fuel tanks should take around 3 minutes at the latest generation of hydrogen filling stations.
Hardened electric vehicle fans will view Mercedes-Benz’s announcement as something of an illogical move, especially considering total range is not much further than the 257-miles offered by the $80,600 Tesla Model X 90D. They may argue too that hydrogen fuel cell technology is far more expensive than battery vehicle technology, more complex, and hardly zero emission right now.
Mercedes-Benz says nothing of the first criticism, and we’d caution that total range would need to increase before many would even consider a plug-in hydrogen fuel cell vehicle over an electric one. As to the costs? Mercedes-Benz says that through work with its hydrogen fuel cell partners Ford and Nissan (yes, despite its heavy focus on electric cars, Nissan is still researching hydrogen fuel cell technology), it has developed a new fuel cell stack that is 30 percent smaller than its predecessor and uses just one-tenth of the highly expensive platinum that gives most hydrogen fuel cell cars their high production price.
That reduction in cost and size should make the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell plug-in hybrid a lot more cost-effective to produce and hopefully keep the sticker price less astronomical, although there’s no word on price yet. If we had to guess however, we’d suggest the price of a plug-in hybrid fuel cell car won’t be anywhere near mass-market affordability for at least a generation or two.
Which brings us to the last criticism. Emissions. Currently, the majority of commercially produced hydrogen is made through the energy-intensive process of steam-reforming natural gas. But just as electric cars become more energy-efficient as more of the grid power mix switches to renewable forms of electricity, so too is the production of commercial hydrogen gradually becoming more energy-efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.
Sadly however, that process is taking a long time and unlike powering an electric car using electricity harvested from photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of your home, there really isn’t any practical way to cost-effectively produce carbon-free hydrogen at home. We note however, that plenty of companies are trying to do just that — and there are even several government-backed competitions around the world right now attempting to solve that particular problem.
But before this post descends into a comparative assassination of the technologies involved — and the massive amount of space we predict will be sacrificed to shoehorn everything into the latest generation of Mercedes-Benz’s GLC chassis — there are two thoughts we’d like readers to remember.
First of all, Mercedes-Benz isn’t shunning all-electric power. It’s already committed to producing an all-electric version of the GLC SUV — referred to by Mercedes-Benz staff as the “ELC” — a car which will have a range of more than 250 miles per charge on the European test cycle. That vehicle, one of four all-electric models promised by the brand by 2020, will cross-shop against similar-specced cars from the likes of Audi, BMW, Porsche and perhaps even Tesla. The GLC F-Cell plug-in hybrid meanwhile, is just another option for those who would right now find themselves gravitating toward a plug-in hybrid with an internal combustion engine.
And if we’re brutally honest, a plug-in hybrid fuel-cell vehicle makes far more sense (assuming the production of hydrogen can be made more renewable) than an internal combustion plug-in hybrid.
But our second and most important thought is this: we’re at a crossroads where the internal combustion engine, after more than 100 years of dominance, has to give away to other technologies in order for our species — and our planet — to stay healthy.
And for those edge-use cases where an electric car — even a long-range one — is not applicable, this seems like a sensible solution.
Is Mercedes-Benz and its parent company Daimler making a smart move? Is a plug-in fuel cell vehicle a sensible successor to the plug-in hybrid in places where environmental or use cycles preclude a 100-percent electric car?
And would you want to own one? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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