Prof Dr Thomas Weber, 62, has been responsible for Daimler Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development for 12 years. This means he is involved in a key position in the ongoing largest technological transformation of the automobile in its 130-year history.
In the interview, he summarises where we stand in powertrain development and provides a look ahead.
Professor Weber, petrol models, diesel models, plug-in hybrids, battery or hydrogen – is this confusing variety really necessary? Or a sign of disorientation?
Weber: It is a necessity. And that is precisely the reason why Daimler deliberately opted not for a solitary type of powertrain for tomorrow’s mobility, but for a coexistence of different technologies. These are optimally tailored to the particular customer needs and vehicle types. You have to remember that we have a vehicle range without equal. From microcars to heavy-duty transports, we cover all mobility requirements. And that requires us to see the whole picture. All types of powertrains you mentioned have their justification and chances. Customers are not looking to sacrifice in the sense of “less car”. That is why we emphasise enhanced efficiency through more intelligent technology – and we do it consistently across all model series.
Let us look at the individual alternatives. Does the diesel engine actually still have a future?
We are sure it does! Especially in Europe, diesel engines are the most economical and efficient alternative for those who drive a lot. Our new premium diesel models are more fuel efficient and more powerful, lighter and more compact than ever before – and they are designed to meet all future emission standards worldwide. Diesel engines in trucks and cars are indispensable if traffic-related CO2 emissions are to be cut further.
And the petrol engine?
It too has undergone a remarkable development in the last ten years, internal friction, variable valve timing, direct injection and turbocharging, just to name a few. And it will make further progress – with the introduction of petrol particulate filters as standard, and especially with the introduction of the 48-volt systems. Please keep in mind: We managed to cut the fuel consumption of our vehicle fleet practically by half within 20 years thanks to the rigorous advancement of the internal combustion engines. We will continue on this path, because the internal combustion engine and electrification are not in competition with each other. They are perfect partners for many use cases. For example, the general weakness of petrol engines in the area of efficiency under partial load is overcome with the hybridisation and this blows the door for further downsizing wide open.
Are plug-in hybrids more than a technology to bridge the gap?
In any case, it’s a bridge that spans far into the future. Plug-in hybrid technology represents a significant efficiency gain and the possibility to drive locally emission-free without range restrictions. The possible distances will soon be considerably longer still in light of the rapid development of the battery technology. But above all, plug-in technology is the decisive and likewise mental entry into electric mobility. People will almost playfully learn necessary behaviour like regular charging.
This brings us to battery-powered electric vehicles. Their range is insufficient, charging takes too long and they cost too much – so the criticisms we hear every day. What’s your response?
You can blame a sports car for not offering room for nine, an RV for not fitting in an underground car park and a smart electric drive for not being suitable for driving from Hamburg to Rome. But that is misleading. An electric vehicle is certainly not the right answer yet for people who regularly drive long distances between cities or on the motorway. But who actually does that? In reality, the usage profile of many cars is actually quite different.
What does the usage profile look like from your point of view?
For instance, we take the children to school in the morning and then head on to work. The car is parked there for hours and the battery can be easily recharged – if the employer offers provides a possibility to do so. The commute is the same distance in the evening, even if take a little side trip to go shopping or stop for a workout. If you’re a motorist, ask yourself how many days a year you drive more than 50 or 100 kilometres at a stretch.
Nonetheless, people also want to go on vacation with their car or go visit grandma on Easter.
Of course. That is part of the freedom that we owe to the car and that we want to preserve. But let us look at reality in this regard as well: Many households have two or more vehicles and they don’t use the second car for these trips anyway – it could therefore also be electrically powered. I also see a major opportunity for carsharing or rental offers in this context: I become the temporary owner of a suitable vehicle for the great journey or the exceptional trip. We already do that today when we rent a Sprinter to move the children or an SLC for a tour of Scotland, for which we arrive by plane. Or an RV for a vacation in the USA.
But the question of the high purchase price still remains…
…and it is justified, at least in part. Especially in the early days, new technologies are always somewhat more expensive. But there are also a number of positive aspects when you buy an electric vehicle: low operating costs, low noise, lots of driving fun and of course less impact on the environment. Naturally, we see that electric mobility is not yet picking up steam as much as we would wish. That is why we also welcome, among other things, the initiative of the German Federal Government – and that of many other countries – to offer a bonus to create an additional incentive to join the technology transformation…
…because you will finally be in the black selling electric vehicles as a result?
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is one point especially that in my mind is getting a little bit lost in the discussion about the buying incentive: We welcome the state subsidy not because we make money from it in any way. Nobody makes a profit these days with electric vehicles – especially not the manufacturer, who is always held up as a shining example. The main issue is the public, shared commitment of industry and policymakers to electric mobility. This step will facilitate the breakthrough of electric mobility. At Daimler, we want electric mobility to spread more widely and are intensively working on making it ready for the broad masses. But in many respects, this goes beyond the advancement of our vehicles and technologies. Especially standardisation of the charging infrastructure plays a primary role.
What is in store for the battery technology? Do you expect technological breakthroughs in the coming years?
A lot will happen in this area in the coming years that will help us to drive farther and make electric mobility more affordable. Thanks to intensive research work, we see a doubling of the energy density in an unchanged installation space while the cost of batteries will be cut by half. With the introduction of the post-lithium-ion technology, of which the lithium-sulphur systems are currently the most promising, we will have an entirely different playing field in the next decade.
Automakers must realise fleet emissions of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2020. How many electric cars do you have to sell for Daimler to reach the target?
We have our eyes firmly on this target. We have taken a giant step in the development. Between 2014 and 2015, we cut our fleet average by 6 grams to 123 g/km. Our target for the MBC fleet in Europe is around 100 grams. We will steadily increase the percentage of electric vehicles in our fleet to reach this target. Electric mobility at Daimler will be in the six figures by 2020.
And vehicles with internal combustion engine and those with battery power will continue to build on the same platform?
Not exclusively. We are now at a point where we are also developing a dedicated vehicle architecture for purely battery-electric vehicles, in addition to the hybridised vehicle models and those powered by a fuel cell. This is another indication of our commitment to electric mobility. We are investing massively in electric mobility. We are convinced the market is now ready. This step will considerably increase the appeal and utility of electric vehicles further still.
What role is left for the fuel cell then?
The fact that the fuel cell powertrain is ready for market today is undisputed. We already demonstrated that back in 2011 with the Mercedes-Benz F-CELL World Drive. One thing is clear: battery technology also promises increasingly longer ranges at lower and lower costs. But the fuel cell will continue to have at least one clear advantage in future: long ranges with short refuelling times of just three minutes. The hydrogen technology is also and especially suitable for the bus sector, where there is particular strong demand from cities. The vision of a totally emission-free mobility based on hydrogen as energy source is alive and well. Today, its biggest handicap still is the necessity to establish an entirely separate infrastructure of filling stations. The concrete infrastructure build-up plans in many countries and not least in Germany drawn up by our H2 Mobility joint venture make us optimistic, however. We will make yet another statement with the market launch of our new fuel cell vehicle based on the GLC. In particular with its innovative technology, which we already showcased in our F 125! and F 015 research vehicles: With the F-CELL plug-in powertrain, we will expand the possibilities further still.