Report: After 1.5 Years With a Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell, Even Auto Industry Expert Reports Major Challenges With Hydrogen

When electric cars like the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt started to appear on the market in late 2010, those brave enough to buy one faced the typical uphill struggle faced by many an early adopter, from those who buy the latest and greatest smartphone to those who have to try the latest and greatest gadget long before it’s proven itself useful.

For the most part, the charging infrastructure in existence at the time was notoriously unreliable and owners were forced to choose between only making short, local trips or planning long-distance excursions with the kind of detailed precision usually reserved for a black op mission. And while many of those super early adopters — this author included — were well aware of the limitations imposed on our vehicles by the lack of public charging infrastructure, we made the switch knowing that eventually things would get a lot better. Of course, before that happened however, those early adopters faced a plethora of problems from vandalized charging stations to incorrect charging databases, unhelpful dealerships and stranded cars.

A small number of B-Class F-Cells have been tested in both the U.S. and Germany.

A small number of B-Class F-Cells have been tested in both the U.S. and Germany.

Luckily, unless you live well outside a major city, things have got a lot easier for today’s electric car driver. But while most of the teething problems associated with electric cars have now been solved and mainstream buyers are beginning to switch to electric vehicles in earnest, it seems hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still a very long way from that point.

At least, that’s if the sobering testimony of one early adopting Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell car customer is indicative of what life is really like when your electric vehicle requires a hydrogen filling station rather than a power outlet to refuel at.  When you realize that testimony comes courtesy of an auto industry insider whose automotive engineering company specializes in a range of automotive technologies including hydrogen fuel cell cars, it becomes even more worrying.

The cars may work, but the infrastructure doesn't... yet...

The cars may work, but the infrastructure doesn’t… yet…

The revelations, made in an interview published by pro-hydrogen news journal H2-International (via GreenCarReports), tell of unreliable hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, mediocre performance and periods of time passing by where the car simply couldn’t be used.

The subject of the interview is David Wenger of Wenger Engineering, a small firm which specializes in providing the automotive world with thermodynamic engineering services, as well as Chemical engineering, CFD simulation, software and the design and operation of hydrogen fuel cell systems. With a long list of clients in the automotive industry including Daimler, Honda, Bosch, BMW, Audi and Shell to name a few, the company has made for itself as a go-to expert in hydrogen fuel cell technology, making Wenger the ideal candidate for testing out the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell as a private customer.

But after leasing the car for one and a half years it appears that there’s a major disparity between theory and practice. Despite his expertise, Wenger told H2-International that both he and his company’s employees — who were also allowed to drive the B-Class F-Cell — found life with the hydrogen fuel cell car challenging at times and impossible at others.

His frank, candid verdict? Driving a Hydrogen fuel cell car today is a “sobering experience.”

Unlike the recently-launched, limited production Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell wasn’t built as a hydrogen fuel cell car. Instead, just like the B-Class E-Drive electric car, it was built upon the existing 7-year old chassis for the B-Class hatchback. This attracted some comment form both Wenger and his staff, who felt the car felt very aged and not as modern as they would have liked in terms of trim or features.

But the overall problem cited by Wenger is the practicalities of living with hydrogen on a daily basis. While battery electric vehicles can be charged at home using a simple domestic power outlet, hydrogen fuel cell cars require refilling at a dedicated, costly, and complicated refuelling station. That requirement meant that Wenger and his team were forced to rely on inaccurate refuelling databases which often reported charging stations as being online and available when they weren’t.

Sometimes, that was down to an inexperienced user pressing the large, red emergency stop button on the fuelling station, leading to the pump shutting itself down for safety reasons. Sometimes, the fuelling stations were simply off line or unresponsive. With no backup save for a drive to another fuelling station, this induced some significant anxiety among those driving the B-Class F-Cell.

Unreliable hydrogen filling infrastructure is causing headaches for early adopters.

Unreliable hydrogen filling infrastructure is causing headaches for early adopters.

Which brings us to another challenge faced by Wenger and his staff: planning trips. Like early electric car owners, fuelling infrastructure wasn’t necessarily always en-route, causing timely detours that made even the most simple of longer-distance trips complicated. Wenger reports that refuelling also took far longer than manufacturers claim, with one employee noting that stopping for hydrogen could add an extra half an hour to any trip.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning at this point that these experiences aren’t exactly a surprise: when electric cars first started to hit the roads as part of small pilot projects or test fleets, there were similar teething problems. But while a household outlet and a basic (if slow) portable charging unit can rescue a stranded electric car or get it to the next working charging station, hydrogen fuel cell cars need a 100-percent reliable infrastructure before they have a chance of being mainstream.

Building that infrastructure is going to be no mean feat.

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