The future of mobility: Interview with Dr. Thomas Weber
Our solution - an intelligent blend of drive concepts. The age of electromobility will not be ushered in at the press of a button.
The future of the automobile is electric. This provocative statement at times leads to false conclusions: It is not the electric car alone, whether powered by the fuel cell or the battery, that represents the technology for a mobile future. Rather, the key to the mobility of the future lies in electrification of the drivetrain.
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Thomas Weber, Board of Management Member responsible for Group Research and ­Mercedes-Benz Cars Development.
And this begins not with the drive unit itself, but already in the auxiliary units of the engine – for example, electrically regulated power steering units, or water pumps that only cut in when actually required. The battery is the key component for all electrification measures – and at the same time presents the greatest technical challenge. Its efficiency and economy determine the success or failure of opportunities for the future of mobility. How do the carmakers intend to get to grips with CO2? What drive technology is the most suitable for reducing fuel consumption? And how can this all be reconciled with the desire for safety, comfort, and driving pleasure?
“No other premium carmaker is in a better overall position than we are to fulfill the entire spectrum of expectations placed on sustainable mobility.”
Convincing answers to all these questions are given by Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG with responsibility for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development.
Daimler has been a moving force behind the overall development of road transportation for 125 years – from individual mobility in passenger cars to goods transport in commercial vehicles. Where is it all heading, Dr. Weber?
Our objective is to secure sustainable mobility on a long-term basis – as anchored in our “road map.” We intend to be leaders in green technologies while, on the other hand, not neglecting typical Mercedes-Benz virtues such as safety, comfort, or superior driving pleasure. We make high investments to this end. However, Daimler and Mercedes-Benz do not only stand for topics of the´future such as electric automobiles powered by the fuel cell or the battery. Our current models already today incorporate effective technologies for even more efficiency, environmental compatibility, and safety.
In the first stage, we are setting out to achieve this with our BlueEFFICIENCY measures for passenger cars with state-of-the- art internal combustion engines. These include downsizing, high-pressure supercharging, direct injection, and strategic optimization measures on the vehicle itself, for example in matters of aerodynamics, lightweight design, and energy management. Great potential for further enhanced efficiency is also offered by made-to-measure hybridization in a number of stages.
How long will diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles remain what they have been for many decades – the mainstay of mobility in road transport?
State-of-the-art internal combustion engines, both with and without hybridization, are an indispensable option for the future. They are needed, first of all, simply because electric drive units will not initially be able to be produced in required quantities and at viable costs in the high-volume segment – and because the necessary infrastructure is still lacking. Over the next few decades, the quality of internal combustion engines will therefore continue to determine how much fuel is in fact saved and what levels of emission can thereby be prevented.
One thing is certain: Despite all progress, the electric automobile will not be able to replace vehicles powered by internal combustion engines in the short term, but will gradually extend the range of drive systems for the future. Modern diesel and gasoline models will remain the mainstay of the automotive world for a long time to come – in individual transport with passenger cars, especially on long journeys, and above all in goods transport by truck. As a result the engineers from Daimler and Mercedes-Benz have devised a broad-based approach in which the internal combustion engine is by no means obsolete but continues to play an important role.
Does that mean that even the electric vehicle is just one of several options?
In public discussion, the impression has arisen that the era of the electric automobile will be starting tomorrow. In fact, however, while electric vehicles – whether they are powered by fuel cells or batteries or incorporate a range extender – offer enormous potential in terms of environmental compatibility, they are yet to reach large-scale production maturity. Along with a number of technological challenges such as sufficient production capacity for powerful and safe batteries, a comprehensive charging infrastructure still remains to be established, as does a hydrogen filling station network.
Locally emission-free, quiet, and highly efficient driving is of particular interest above all in densely populated cities where restricted access and environmental zones are now the rule rather than the exception. The second generation of the smart fortwo electric drive, of which a small series went into production in mid-November 2009, is exemplary for an urban automobile. On one single battery charge it attains a range of up to 135 kilometers, which is well suited to city application and is adequate for more than three-fourths of all drivers.
So the energy storage medium will become the key technology?
That’s right. A crucial requirement for any electric drive system is a powerful, safe, and reliable energy storage unit. The performance of the entire electrical system depends on the battery, starting with its charging capacity. For this reason, Daimler is concentrating above all on developing a powerful traction battery. It must have a long service life and a high level of crash safety as well as being suitable for recycling. All these requirements are fulfilled by the new lithium-ion battery, which has already demonstrated its suitability in hybrid applications. Its advantages lie above all in its compact dimensions in combination with a considerably higher performance as compared with the nickel-metal hydride batteries used to date.
And thanks to its innovative cooling system and temperature management, it has proved highly reliable independently of climatic conditions and has excellent cold-starting ability. We are also investigating further future-oriented battery concepts. Our goal is to further increase energy density and to reduce weight – even though in our view, some of these concepts are still far from reaching series maturity.
What does this all mean for Daimler’s strategy?
The outcome is an intelligent blend of drive concepts. In view of the various vehicle categories, application profiles, and individual customers’ wishes, we are employing a number of different concepts with made-to-measure drivetrain solutions to suit all customers. Long-distance transport will continue to be dominated by state-of-the-art internal combustion engines with or without hybrid module, supplemented by fuel cell vehicles. In rural driving, this scenario can be additionally supported by plug-in hybrids and fuel cell automobiles. In urban traffic – especially in the increasing number of mega-cities throughout the world – the streetscape will be dominated by locally emission-free vehicle concepts with battery and fuel cell drive.
With these prospects in mind, is it still conceivable that a large Mercedes-Benz sedan would consume less than four liters per 100 kilometers?
Our Mercedes-Benz S 500 Plug-in HYBRID technology-bearer, presented at the 2007 IAA, is the world’s first luxury-segment model in the three-liter category. This was achieved by means of state-of-the-art hybrid drive technology and strategic optimization measures in matters of aerodynamics, lightweight design, and energy management.
Our F 800 Style research vehicle is giving us a glimpse into the future of the large sedan with the star: With its efficient plug-in hybrid drive and a CO2 bonus for battery-electric operation, it achieves a certified fuel consumption of just 2.9 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers. This yields an extremely low CO2 emission level of only 68 grams per kilometer. Whichever drive technologies are used, comfortable, superior, and safe premium automobiles such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class still number among our core competencies. And this will remain so in future.
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