Published on March 31st, 2018 | by Maarten Vinkhuyzen
March 31st, 2018 by Maarten Vinkhuyzen
At the 2018 Geneva Motor Show we got a good look at three competing drivetrain architectures. Both Mercedes and Hyundai did have displays on their stands that demonstrated that they don’t yet realize how superior a battery electric drivetrain is. Mercedes showed its new 4 and 6 cylinder engines with electric support, what I called fake PHEVs in a previous article. Hyundai showed its vision of the future with the hydrogen fuel cell NEXO.
Mercedes stuck in the past.
Mercedes is still developing very advanced hybrid drivetrains with 4 and 6 cylinder engines. They are really very impressive, as these photos show. But why is Mercedes developing these? And why is it launching more models with these drivetrains than fully electric vehicles in its EQ sub-brand? Cars they did not show to journalists.
There can be a number of reasons.
Price — a hybrid car costs less than a fully electric version of the same car with an adequate battery.
Market — they think customers are not ready for fully electric.
Driving — they think they can create a better driving experience with a hybrid drivetrain.
Convenience — speeding on the German Autobahn uses lots of energy, so filling up in minutes is important.
But are these reasons valid?
Many Germans still don’t see Tesla vehicles as all-around capable cars. The battery is thought to be too small and charging takes too long. German distances and driving speed make “fast charging while traveling” a necessity. An adequate BEV should have at least a 150 kWh battery, preferably a 200 kWh one, and every model should have at least some version with such a battery and range. The weight of the battery is a serious challenge to that, and the price is worse.
Tesla showed at the Semi unveiling a price premium of about $75/kWh for the long-range version instead of the standard version, and also showed a Roadster with a 200 kWh battery. If Mercedes could put a 200 kWh battery into a C-class car that would add only $15,000 to the consumer price, the cost argument would be moot. But Mercedes thinks the California laws of physics don’t apply in Germany, or something like that. It sounded a bit like the argument that machines heavier than air can’t fly that were made after the Wright brothers claimed to have done the impossible on a beach near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.
Many customers are not really into cars. They are just small rooms on four wheels that bring you from A to B and hopefully have decent music on board. What is happening under the hood is important for bragging rights, but effective bragging is about the reactions of the listeners, not really about what is under the hood. When it is good enough for your boss and your neighbor, it is possibly good enough for you. Markets can adopt new technology very fast — that is where that scary S-curve happens.
On the floor of the show in Geneva some people were talking about the lack of the noise and vibration of a real 8 or 12 cylinder. But that part of the driving experienced will be missed by few. And all other aspects, if the reviewers are right, of the driving experience (the instant torque, the low center of mass, one-pedal driving, etc.) are superior in an all-electric car. All-wheel drive with electronic torque vectoring will become standard on the type of cars that Mercedes makes. But hearing this or even experiencing this is a different thing from believing this. The “real car guys and girls” just know how superior their engines are.
The last argument concerns convenience. That is first solved by a larger battery and ultra-fast charging, and then removed by home charging. The luxury of starting every day with a fully charged battery is something one gets easily addicted to.
On all four points, fully electric vehicles are superior, or will become superior in a short time. Investing in PHEV development is investing in a stranded asset, as economists so aptly describe.
Hyundai sees rosy hydrogen future.
Hyundai does the opposite of Mercedes Benz. It doesn’t cling to an old technology — believes that a future technology will be the dominant one. Hyundai has models of both the fully electric Kona and the hydrogen fuel cell Nexo, with the outside partially removed side by side on their exhibition stand.
The Kona and the Nexo are both zero-emission electric vehicles. The difference is “only” in the way they store their energy. One uses a large battery, the other hydrogen tanks and a fuel cell.
There are many theoretical discussions about how smart or stupid each technology is and why one or the other is the technology of the future. I want to ignore most of those discussions and look very practically at these two cars.
The range as configured is a little larger with the Nexo, but that is a design decision, not a technical limitation.
Looking at both cars, the first thing that is obvious is the large volume of the hydrogen fuel cell installation. But as our commenter “Hydrogen First” has pointed out, the mass of the battery is larger. And both differences are significant. Neither is very important in the large SUVs and trucks popular in the USA, but both are important in Europe and Asia.
The second thing that is important is charging/fueling while travelling. This is a clear advantage of the fuel cell if there are places to fuel up. But 40% of car owners will never need to charge while travelling, and the luxury of having a full battery every morning is nothing to sneeze at. Charging in “zero time” while sleeping, working, or shopping is hard to beat.
The third and probably most important difference is price. At the moment, there is no real idea of the price of a fuel cell installation for a normal car. Only after a few years of mass production can this become clear. The price of car batteries is better understood. Mass production is starting in a few locations and the price has been dropping by about 14% per year for at least the last two decades. And there is no reason to expect this decline will stop soon. It is like “Moore’s Law” for IC chips, somehow new technology developments make it possible to keep the improvements coming.
The price decline and technology improvement of fuel-cell technology is less clear, but it has been slower than those of batteries. Because this type development tends to be constant over longer periods, it is a fair guess that batteries will keep outpacing fuel cells.
So, why does Hyundai choose one over the other for its future strategy?
Why should all that extra volume be less important than the extra mass?
Why is a fast refill while traveling more important than the convenience of charging in zero time at home, work, or the shop?
What expectations does Hyundai have that fuel cells can ever compete on price with batteries?
It is a mystery to me. Walking around both exhibits of these technologies side by side, all I saw was that fuel cells are no match for batteries. Why waste all that space, add all that complexity, and build an expensive hydrogen distribution and refilling infrastructure when you can simply add batteries for far less money?
They show me that hydrogen fuel cells are a dead end, while they appear to think they are showing the future.
I might be wrong, and that does not really matter, because both are zero-emission technologies. And that makes my difference of opinion with Hyundai far less important than my disagreement with Mercedes.
They should abandon their fake-PHEV development. The sooner, the better.