Large global automakers customarily pursue research into multiple types of technologies and future powertrains at the same time.
Sometimes they pan out, sometimes they don't.
German automakers have only really come around to devoting their efforts to plug-in electric cars in the last five or six years.
Before that, zero-emission vehicles of the future were expected to operate on hydrogen fuel cells, for which networks of fueling stations to supply pure hydrogen at high pressures would have to be constructed.
Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler was one of the earlier companies to commit to research on vehicles powered by hydrogen.
In 2013, it partnered with Ford and Nissan in a three-way R&D development group to pool hydrogen fuel-cell technologies and share the high costs of getting such vehicles into production.
Part of that announcement included a delay in the first "volume" production Mercedes powered by a fuel cell, from 2015 to 2017.
Last year, the company unveiled an adapted GLC crossover utility that used not only a hydrogen fuel cell to power its electric drive motor but also included a 9-kilowatt-hour plug-in battery pack large enough to carry the car for 20 miles or more on grid electricity alone.
You could think of it as a plug-in hybrid whose range extender was a hydrogen fuel cell rather than a gasoline combustion engine, if you like.
In late April, however, Mercedes said it will speed up the deployment of its planned battery-electric vehicle lineup, advancing it as much as three years from 2025 to 2022.
Last summer, David Wenger—a German hydrogen proponent and driver of a Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell, the small Mercedes hatchback powered by a hydrogen fuel cell—shared his experiences with the trade outlet H2-International.
“In total, the results are sobering, sadly," he said. "That really hurts.”
First Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle delivery, Newport Beach, Dec 2010Enlarge Photo
Among the challenges were the car's short range between refueling stops, compared to diesel versions of the same B-Class, and questionable reliability of the fueling network—even with a phone app that was supposed to show real-time status of each station.
Now it appears that Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche is being more publicly negative about the prospects for future cars powered by hydrogen.
A recent article on the Smart2Zero blog covered reports by German media that Zetsche said at a late-April industry conference that fuel cells would no longer be a part of the company's near-term roadmap for volume vehicles.
“Battery costs are declining rapidly whereas hydrogen production remains very costly,” Zetsche is quoted as saying.
UPDATE: A later article in German on the HZwei blog (zwei is the number 2 in German, and the blog covers hydrogen, or H2) indicates that the Daimler press office later asked that site to correct its reporting.
A rough translation of the Daimler statement would be: "With the previous orientation, nothing changed. [...] We need the hydrogen. [...] Daimler sees a future in the fuel cell."
Dieter ZetscheEnlarge Photo
The planned GLC F-Cell plug-in fuel-cell crossover will go ahead, Zetsche suggested, but be reserved to fleet operators only—those who had centralized hydrogen fueling capabilities themselves.
While fuel-cell vehicles remain "technically interesting," Zetsche continued, they will not be practical for consumer sale until the price of hydrogen fuel falls considerably after widespread and cheap renewable energy becomes available.
Production of the GLC F-Cell is expected to be around 1,000 units in 2018, its first year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We have updated this article, first published on April 4, to reflect later coverage alleging that the original source reporting on the blog Smart2Zero reflected a misunderstanding of Zetsche's actual statement. Our original article left the statement in question, but we have added the later claims by Daimler that its CEO's statements were misinterpreted.
[hat tip: m2cts]