Daimler Stays

Death of a Fuel Cell – invented in 1966 – discontinued in 2017, © Wirtschaftswoche

Daimler head Dieter Zetsche’s statement during the auto motor und sport conference in Germany prompted Stefan Hajek and Martin Seiwert, the editors of the Wirtschaftswoche business magazine, to write an obituary for the fuel cell (see also Don’t Count on It).

When asked by one attendee about the future of the fuel cell at Daimler and Zetsche’s opinion on the development of both fuel cell and battery-powered engines for electric vehicles, the head of Daimler replied:

“Later this year or early next year, we will offer a growing number of fuel cell cars. Of course, they can’t be part of every showroom and whoever needs one can just buy one. He or she may get home on one tank, but that would be it. In today’s market, fuel cell engines are only workable in fleet operations as part of a thoroughly planned-out environment.

I believe that we are certainly one of the few carmakers that have made great advances in fuel cell use. The main benefits we imagined FCEVs to have five years ago were a significantly greater range and a dramatically lower refueling time compared to battery-electric cars. But the stronger-than-expected development of the latter has diminished, greatly diminished those advantages.

Additionally, there are cost-related drawbacks to the day-to-day use of fuel cells. I’m not making a value judgment here. The real-life consequences of pouring immense amounts of cash into the development of battery-electric vehicles while devoting few resources to the fuel cell industry […] have led to a much faster drop in battery prices. We are increasingly using renewable power […] and this power does, in fact, provide battery-electric vehicles with a carbon-free source of energy, whereas actual zero-carbon hydrogen for FCEVs can only be generated when you take the additional step of generating power via electrolysis – and put in double the effort to achieve the same result.

Considering all of this, I believe one would be well advised to focus on battery-electric vehicles over the next ten years, but without neglecting fuel cell development. The energy industry might advance hydrogen-based renewable storage. If it does, the use of fuel cell vehicles would be the next logical step.

Battery-electric cars could also become so successful that they will reach the limits of their charging infrastructure. This would certainly be a second avenue favoring fuel cells. All in all, there is really no reason to think that fuel cells have outlived their usefulness. They could be the future.

However, I think over the next five to ten years, the focus should be on battery-electric vehicles.”

Transcript of a video recording of the auto motor und sport conference

Only sensible solution

Peter Fuß, senior advisory partner automotive at consultancy Ernst & Young, explained: “Carmakers agree that the fuel cell is the only sensible solution.” Asked why FCEV development seems to have fallen behind, he said: “Right now, carmakers are hedging their bets on battery-electric vehicles because they’re afraid that the era of diesel cars may face an abrupt end. They need to rely on a technology that’s available – whether they want to or not. It’s their only option to meet the CO2 emissions targets for 2021.”

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