Mercedes is preparing for all possibilities as we move towards greater electrification of the car. The F800 concept revealed at the Geneva motor show, although only a research vehicle at this stage, previews a flexible architecture for rear-drive models that could support plug-in hybrids, all-electric and range-extender electric cars, or even those powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
Mercedes has already promised that there will be a plug-in hybrid of the next-generation S-Class. At the Frankfurt motor show last September, CEO Dr Dieter Zetsche said it would be capable of 90mpg and have CO2 emikssions of only 74g/km.
Mercedes had previously announced how it would use the platform of the A- and B-Class to support a variety of electrically-propelled front-drive models.
It may look like Mercedes is having to bet on every horse in the race to ensure it is prepared for whichever future technology wins out, but this isn't so, according to Prof Dr Herbert Kohler, the company's head of environmental research and development. He said: 'You can't bet on the right horse until you know who is part of the race, and at this stage it is too early.
'If all current technology were to be electrified it would bring us a market share of around 20% of the total volume, but pure electric battery or fuel cell would have only around 5%. It is totally new technology'
In the medium term, Mercedes favours plug-in hybrids and range-extender electric cars powered by electricity, but with a small internal combustion engine on board to serve as a generator when needed. Hydrogen fuel cells are a longer-term goal.
'Fuel cells would give us the kind of mobility we are used to. You could never achieve that with a battery electric vehicle because of the amount of time you are forced to invest in recharging,' said Kohler.
An alternative propulsion system needs an alternative infrastructure. For electric vehicles, that can not be supported purely by the household grid.'
He is unimpressed by the idea of a chain of quick-swap battery stations, as proposed by Renault and Nissan. 'We looked at this pattern in 1996, but there are two or three reasons why it would not work,' he said.
'First, the battery needs to be a supportive part of the car (stressed member) for crash safety reasons. Second, you are dealing with currents of 400, 500 or 600 volts, and there are only a few people trained to handle that even in our own workshop. Third, we still do not know a lot about the cars during normal running. Why do you think it is you cannot buy one of our Smart electric cars yet?'
Kohler admits that the electrification of the car introduces 'huge opportunities for different business models', however, and says that manufacturers 'may no longer simply supply and sell cars'.