E-Cell: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Sep 2010

The styling has been updated and the battery technology improved, but the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-Cell electric car, which Daimler plans to produce this Fall in limited numbers, brings the German company back to where it was more than a decade ago. [See Alec Brook's CARB’s Fuel Cell Detour on the Road to Zero Emission Vehicles].

It's original A-Class all-electric test vehicle, produced under the aegis of California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in 1997, used what was then state-of-the-art NiMH batteries and had a range of more than 100 miles per charge. Today's reborn E-Cell, depicted in the Mercedes-Benz-produced video below in preparation for the car's official unveiling at the 2010 Paris Auto Show, is said to have essentially the same range as the 1997 version: 200km+ (125 miles).

So, why the 10-year hiatus? Two words: fuel cells. Geoffrey Ballard -- God rest his soul -- demonstrated that it was feasible to create a practical, compact fuel cell using a sophisticated polymer exchange membrane that operated at relatively low temperatures using medical-grade hydrogen. Combining it with atmospheric oxygen created electricity and pure water vapor, and nothing else. It was a carmaker's dream, or so we all thought back then. Here was a 'battery' of sorts that could be 'refueled' in minutes, one that produced no pollution or CO2 emissions. So like every other major carmaker, Daimler shifted its precious research dollars away from its battery electric car program to what would become the F-Cell program, also based on its A-Class Mercedes platform. It would subsequently shift the fuel cell drive to the B-Class vehicle we see today.

Of course, making and storing the hydrogen and getting the fuel cell to keep from freezing up in winter and lasting more than a few hundred hours were challenges, but they could be overcome with a bit more research. More than a decade later and we're still working on them.

So, here we are in 2010; it's deja vu all over again.

What's different this time is that rather than building a handful of demonstrators, the company announced that it would be manufacturing 500 E-Cells this Autumn at its Rastatt, Germany plant for distribution to selected customers in Europe: mainly Germany, France and the Netherlands. Those cars, powered by lithium-ion batteries (more on that in a moment) has an electronically-limited top speed of 150 km/h (93 mph) and 0-to-60km/h acceleration in 5.5 seconds, or approximately 8 seconds to 60 miles per hour.

Not that Daimler's experience with fuel cells was for naught; the electric drive system in the E-Cell comes straight out of its B-Class F-Cell program, while the battery comes out of the Smart ED electric car. And while we're on the subject of the battery, it's been rumored that the pack was developed by Tesla; however, as late as June of this year, Daimler was denying this, though back in May 2009 it acquired 10 percent ownership of Tesla in order to gain access to the Roadster's electric drive technology, including, presumably, its battery system. So, officially, who developed the pack remains an open question.

As to the question of what are Daimler's plans beyond the initial 500 vehicles (the same number of vehicles BMW rolled out in its Mini-E program here in the United States), we are still awaiting word. My educated guess is the company will lease the cars for a couple years, collecting mountains of "real world" data in the process, which they'll thoroughly analyze; and then try to predict what the market for the cars will be based on ever-shifting political currents, fickle consumer fashion, and the price of petroleum. Of course, the bottom line question will always be, can they build them profitably? That's likely why they are working with BYD in China.

I also should point out, that we've not heard the last of the Mercedes F-Cell program. The company has built and leased some 60 of these hydrogen fuel cell sedans based on the B-Class platform in Europe, North America and in Singapore. It also provided a number of them this year for the U.S. Open tennis tournament, along with 75 of its S400 Hybrids. It noted in 6 September 2010 press release that the F-Cell has a range of 240 miles, roughly twice that of the E-Cell and get's the equivalent city-highway fuel economy of 71.3 mpg. Fuel cells still have their issues, but this isn't a technological dead end... just yet.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class F-Cell Video

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