The Mercedes-Benz TecDay in Stuttgart, Germany, provided a glimpse into what's to come from the German automaker as it takes a long, hard look at where it perceives the industry to be headed. Daimler's “Road to the Future” also offered a frank assessment of just where gasoline and diesel engines fit into a world that's increasingly asking engineers to squeeze out greater efficiency by way of hybrid and pure-electric automotive technologies. Along the way, Mercedes-Benz managed to drop a surprise or two into the mix to keep even the most jaded eco-warrior interested.
Gasoline, diesel continue to prevail
We'll start with what everyone already knew: Gasoline isn't going away any time soon, and neither is diesel. Despite the recent, well-advertised pitfalls of the latter when it comes to emissions, Mercedes-Benz remains committed to producing diesel motors alongside its gasoline powerplants. Realistically, the Volkswagen scandal wasn't going to derail Daimler's product planning, which has of course been locked into place for years by the level of investment already allocated to diesel technology. In fact, Mercedes-Benz told us that some of the gear it uses to keep its own diesel emissions clean ― specifically, particulate filters ― are going to start being applied even to cleaner-burning gasoline automobiles as a way to meet creeping and restrictive European standards.
That Mercedes-Benz remains committed to the internal combustion engine for at least “several decades” (according to company spokespeople) is not a surprise. What does jump out is how the automaker intends to keep gas and diesel competitive in the face of a regulatory environment that’s pushing ever closer to a zero-emissions philosophy. More to the point, Mercedes-Benz intends to introduce 48V electrical systems across its entire lineup over the course of the next few years.
48V is better than 12V
A little background is necessary. Currently, the vast majority of automobiles run on a 12V electrical system that handles everything from starting the vehicle to powering the air conditioning to keeping the lights and the stereo system on. Hybrid cars, on the other hand, must combine a much higher voltage system ― measured in the hundreds of volts ― with the standard 12V circuit in order to meet the needs of the electric motors and high-capacity battery systems that see them moving forward.
A 48V design bridges the gap between efficient energy recovery/storage and the cost and safety issues associated with high-voltage hybrids. Once you cross the 60V line with a passenger car, the cost of development shoots up due to the regulations and challenges associated with that level of electrical transmission. At 48V, however, Mercedes-Benz is able to make use of regenerative braking, enhanced battery capacity, and much more powerful starter motors that can provide electric propulsion during low-speed operations.
By moving to a 48V electrical setup, the company will be able to transform every one of its models into a “mild hybrid” that can shut down the engine during coasting, rely on its inline electrical motor to both assist with forward momentum and seamlessly kick the combustion process back into action, and charge the entire system using energy recovered from braking. It's an innovative move that blurs the line between hybrid and non-hybrid automobiles in a manner that seems poised to become increasingly common in the hunt for more efficient motoring.
Hybrids and fuel cell vehicles
Of course, the Mercedes-Benz electrification strategy won't be limited to mild hybrids, as the brand intends to continue the expansion of its high-voltage plug-in hybrid vehicle family, including a refresh of the flagship S 550e capable of traveling up to 50 kilometres on battery power alone.
There's also the spectre of hydrogen fuel cell development that continues to hover at the periphery of Daimler's eco-oriented outlook, a technology that it has now combined with a plug-in hybrid component. The hydrogen economy has yet to gain any real traction, especially here in North America, with fuelling stations scarce and consumer vehicle availability limited. In many ways, this limits fuel cell models to mere curiosities, but Mercedes-Benz isn't giving up yet (and for that matter, neither are Honda, Toyota or BMW).
All-electric Mercedes is coming!
More intriguing than Daimler's hydrogen play, however, was the unexpected announcement that a next-generation, all-electric vehicle platform in on its way. In fact, a mock-up of the design, including the battery and the electric motor itself, was on display at TecDay, with the tease that we were welcome to measure the size of the setup to see if we could guess which vehicle it would find a home in first (roughly 130 centimetres in length, which had us thinking a midsize SUV or sedan).
Although few details were provided, the most tantalizing aspect of the lithium-ion battery was a promised range of up to 500 kilometres on a single charge ― a figure that’s good enough to challenge current leader Tesla in the driving distance department. Also noteworthy was the pledge that Mercedes-Benz would be able to make this modular EV design available across more than just a single class of vehicle, with the first model hitting the market by 2020. This is game-changing technology for the Silver Star in the world of eco-friendly automobiles, and one that could see Mercedes-Benz poised to become a major player in the quest for full-EV dollars.
A gradual transition
With such a spread of technologies soaking up research and development resources, one might argue that Mercedes-Benz would be better off investing billions of dollars in a single area ― let’s say full electrification ― in order to see quicker results. In the real world, however, it makes far more sense to continue to refine drivetrain designs that people already use every single day, such as gasoline and diesel automobiles, while at the same time gradually transitioning to an entire mild hybrid and all-electric showroom.
Mercedes-Benz isn't about to walk away from a hundred years of automotive development on a whim, and its assessment of the transportation realities facing most drivers in the coming decades is level-headed and grounded in a development pace the company understands quite well.