Washington Auto Show: Mercedes B-Class F-CELL Showcased

Sections: Powertrain

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Mercedes-Benz F-CELL is refueled by actress Diane Kruger

Mercedes-Benz is displaying its B-Class F-CELL fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) at the Washington International Auto Show this year. Powered by hyrdrogen fuel cell, the car operates otherwise much like the battery EVs becoming more and more common on America’s roads, only it can be refueled in three minutes instead of several hours’ time. In this photo, actress Diane Kruger, an early adopter of the F-CELL in California, refuels the car. (Photo courtesy Mercedes-Benz USA.)

Mercedes has 25 models at this year’s Washington International Auto Show displaying all manner of safety- and fuel economy-focused technologies, but perhaps the most interesting is a hydrogen-powered model little known to motorists outside California.

According to a Mercedes-Benz press release, the B-Class F-CELL is part of the brand’s display in Washington. The model is the first emissions-free model available from the German brand in the United States, but is only for sale in California for the time being. Mercedes bills it as the car that makes its own electric power by converting hydrogen stored in the car’s fuel cell into electricity. Its only emission is water vapor, Mercedes says.

For more detail about how the powertrain works, we turn it over to Mercedes:

Hydrogen and air react without combustion in the fuel cell stack, producing current to run an electric motor that powers the front wheels, making water as the F-CELL’s only exhaust emission. The F-CELL car combines stored hydrogen with oxygen from the surrounding air to make electrical current. In a single fuel cell, a platinum-coated proton-exchange membrane keeps the two gases separated and promotes a controlled, “slow-motion” chemical reaction, which releases energy in the form of electricity. Using a number of individual fuel cells makes a high-voltage fuel cell stack that can power vehicles ranging from small passenger cars to city buses.

The downside of all that is the car’s MPGe, or its miles per gallon equivalent, a measure of how far the car travels on the electrical equivalent of the amount of energy in one gallon of gasoline. Mercedes says the car has an estimated MPGe of “more than 50″ combined between city and highway test cycles. That’s far less than some battery electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and some plug-in hybrids such as the Ford Energi models and the Chevrolet Volt.

But with that downside also comes a huge upside over those models: Much faster recharging (or, if you prefer, refueling) times. Mercedes says the F-CELL can be refueled with high-pressure hydrogen gas in three minutes. Compare that to the several hours needed for Level 2 240-volt recharging on any of the other models listed above, and the F-CELL has a clear convenience advantage.

Except that its problem is the same as all electric vehicles right now: lack of infrastructure. And it is multiplied by the fact that the EV chargers that are starting to crop up at some businesses are useless to a fuel cell EV that requires hydrogen fuel, not electrons. It’s the same chicken-and-egg conundrum we’ve discussed at length here recently.

Mercedes might be hedging its bets that battery EVs are the stop-gap between conventional combustion engines and fuel cell-powered vehicles like the F-CELL. After all, the F-CELL has a claimed driving range of up to 240 miles, something most battery EVs can’t touch at present. Getting current battery EV technology to that range will take a lot of research and will likely cost a lot– perhaps more than consumers are willing to pay. That would be where battery-weary EV shoppers could be drawn to FCEVs like the F-CELL. And if they are so drawn, surely they won’t be disappointed in either the extended driving range, the faster refueling time, or its claimed 136 horsepower and 214 ft-lbs of torque.

But for now, the limited availability of compressed hydrogen gas has limited sales of the F-CELL to the Golden State, Mercedes says, and there only under a special lease program. Early adopters pay a premium price for that lease: $849 per month for a 24-month term.

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