BMW has had a battery-electric car (with an optional range extender) on the market for two years now.

Audi and Porsche have announced battery-electric luxury models coming in two to four years that directly target Tesla.

But what of the third German automotive powerhouse, Daimler?

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According to executive Axel Heix in an exclusive interview with Green Car Reports last week, the automaker sees little hurry to launch battery-electric vehicles.

Heix spoke on the sidelines of a drive event in Austria for the new 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS full-size seven-seat sport utility vehicle; he's the director of product projects for SUVs and sports cars for Mercedes-Benz.

He noted that Mercedes plans to offer plug-in hybrid versions of virtually all of its high-volume models over the next few years.

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE350e Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE350e Plug-In Hybrid

The S-Class and C-Class sedans, and GLE sport utility vehicle (nee ML-Class) all now have plug-in models launched, though in limited regions.

But Heix acknowledged that the updated GLS full-size SUV (nee GL-Class) is one of the few products in the company's lineup that won't get a plug-in variant.

The ability to carry seven people is one of its crucial selling points, he said, and the third-row seat prevents the fitting of a battery pack below the load bay.

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Heix, 53, has been with Daimler for 25 years, and knows its products intimately.

He began the interview by pointing to the range of battery-electric products, from the Smart Electric Drive through the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive to the Mercedes SLS AMG Electric Drive sport coupe.

He acknowledged, however, that those models are low-volume and/or far from mainstream products for the U.S.

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

Mercedes-Benz is "strongly developing in [the] direction" of electrification, he said--but it believes that for the moment, plug-in hybrids are more practical for the majority of buyers.

Once a charging infrastructure to permit long-range trips is available, he said, battery-electric cars "will be accepted" by regular buyers. Until then, they remain "city cars" for most customers.

Asked how such an infrastructure will be created, Heix suggested that it will "happen step-by-step" in response to national legislation on fuel consumption and incentives to produce partially or fully zero-emission vehicles.

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He pointed specifically to China as one example of aggressive legislation driving all makers to offer plug-in vehicles.

Asked whether the plug-in hybrids that are more popular in China than battery-electric cars are actually plugged in at all, Heix said he hadn't seen data on that question.

"It's a question of who starts" to build such networks, he said--whether it be private companies, other automakers, or government entities.

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

Norway and The Netherlands are two countries where governments give enormous incentives to buyers of electric cars, he said, and that works.

In those countries, charging stations have appeared in parking lots, supermarkets, and many other locations, even curbside, to support the growing number of plug-in cars.

And yet, he said, if the goal is to reduce fuel consumption and emission of carbon dioxide, "It's astonishing how much you can do with internal-combustion engines."

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Heix noted, accurately, that in some European regions, the most efficient combustion-engine vehicles have a lower wells-to-wheels carbon footprint than electric cars plugged into coal-powered electric grids.

That's much less the case in the United States, where vehicles are far less fuel-efficient overall and coal is slowly giving way to natural gas and renewable energy sources to produce electricity.

Will there be a time when consumers en masse start to buy electric cars simply because they're better, nicer, and more pleasant to drive than electric cars--and they're at roughly equivalent price levels?

2016 Mercedes-Benz S550e Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Mercedes-Benz S550e Plug-In Hybrid

There will be, Heix responded, but "not in the near future."

Would it be within his lifetime? Perhaps, he mused, but not within the next one to three generations of vehicles--meaning not within seven to 20 years.

Heix broadly agreed with the notion that automotive lithium-ion cells will fall roughly 7 percent per year in cost, but demurred at the suggestion that carmakers might accept losses on the first generation of a new technology to gain experience and lay the groundwork for higher volumes in future.

From the Daimler point of view, he said, it might be possible for the lines with the best business cases--he gestured toward the large, luxurious, expensive GLS in the background--to provide profits that might help support those with less profitable balance sheets.

2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS Class

2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS Class

"It's a balance with the products we already have," he added, "and we see electrification as an innovation in the future."

But, he said, "We have to keep it at a [financial] level that makes sense," adding that while the performance of electric cars was fast approaching that of combustion vehicles, the business case for carmakers still lagged behind.

"It's a very interesting time," Heix said cheerfully, "and competition is always good."

That came in response to a question about the impact of Tesla Motors from Mercedes' point of view.

"As we develop our capabilities" in electrified drivetrains, Heix said, "I'm pretty sure we will be able to build cars that are fully competitive" with any other battery-electric vehicles in the luxury market.

Tesla Model S lithium-ion battery pack in rolling chassis [photo: Martin Gillet via Flickr]

Tesla Model S lithium-ion battery pack in rolling chassis [photo: Martin Gillet via Flickr]

At a different point in the interview, he used similar wording, but this time the phrase was "more than competitive."

Heix pointed specifically to the company's work on aerodynamics and self-driving vehicles, including the F 015 and Frankfurt concepts shown this year alone.

There have been a few rumors of a so-called EcoChic platform to be introduced by Mercedes around 2019 or so for electrified vehicles, perhaps including battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Asked specifically about those rumors, Heix smiled almost imperceptibly and responded, "No comment."

[Mercedes-Benz provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person report.]


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