Fuel Cell Sprinter, 2001: Van tested by customer
The commitment of DaimlerChrysler to commercial vehicles with fuel cell drives deepened. On July 26, 2001, the first cooperation with a customer, the Hamburg-based distribution company Hermes Versand Service, was sealed. The deal was for Hermes to test the world’s first van featuring a fuel cell drive system, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, under everyday conditions over a two-year period. In a first test phase the prototype was initially deployed in the Stuttgart metropolitan region, and then, after the Hermes drivers were instructed, in Hamburg.
The basis of the fuel-cell Sprinter was an all-wheel-drive version, though reduced to pure front-wheel drive. Instead of the standard combustion engine it had a 75 kW/102 hp electric motor coupled to a six-speed semiautomatic transmission. The current of this motor was supplied by a single compact fuel cell stack. The underfloor configuration of drive technology and tank system permitted full use to be made of the cargo space. Front-wheel drive and power steering went a long way toward ensuring good handling. The top speed was about 120 km/h (75 mph).
In the first twelve months of operation, the realistic testing, scheduled for two years, already confirmed the ambitious expectations regarding the fuel cell van’s suitability for everyday use. Up to that point the van had traveled over 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) without serious snags. Modifications to the system based on the knowledge gained in the course of the testing improved operational reliability, range and economy.
The fuel consumption about equaled that of the diesel-engined Sprinter available at the time – an outstanding result for this still young technology, particularly seeing as parts of the drive train were not up to the now possible standard. Filling up with hydrogen hardly took longer than with diesel fuel.
Its drivers, trained merely to deal with certain peculiarities of the hydrogen technology, were captivated by the ease of operation, the maneuverability, the quietness and the range of easily 150 kilometers (well over 90 miles).
Test under practical conditions
In October 2002, DaimlerChrysler presented the A-Class F-Cell and announced production of a small series of 60 cars. From 2003, these were tested in everyday operation in small fleets of customers in Europe, the U.S.A., Japan and Singapore within the framework of government-subsidized international cooperative ventures. The scope of delivery in each case also included a hydrogen filling station.
At the same time, the first of 33 Mercedes-Benz Citaro city buses with zero-emission fuel cell drive was presented; also from 2003, they were operated in demanding line service by the local public transport authorities of ten cities in a two-year test.
The cities involved in the project were Amsterdam, Barcelona, Hamburg, London, Luxembourg, Madrid, Porto, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Reykjavik und Perth/Australia. In Europe, this field test formed part of the CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) hydrogen project. In November 2005, another three buses were supplied to Beijing. In March 2006, the European CUTE project was extended by one year with the aim of incorporating more practical experience in fuel cell research.
The Citaro fuel cell bus was the successor to the NEBUS. It had a range of some 200 kilometers (125 miles) and, depending on its equipment, capacity for up to 70 passengers. The fuel cell module with an output of over 200 kW/272 hp and the compressed-gas containers holding the hydrogen compressed to 350 bars were accommodated on the roof of the bus. As in the production bus with diesel engine, the electric motor, transmission, propeller shaft and rear axle were installed in the rear. The bus reached a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph).
Environment-friendly Sprinter in commercial delivery service
On May 19, 2003, a cooperative venture of DaimlerChrysler, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and United Parcel Service (UPS) was announced. This meant that the first nation-wide large-scale demonstration project for the practical testing of fuel cell vehicles in everyday commercial delivery service was launched in North America. The project was headquartered at the EPA in Ann Arbor.
For express deliveries, a Mercedes-Benz A-Class Fuel Cell was entered into everyday service. Two Dodge Sprinters were the first commercial vehicles powered by fuel cells to be used in commercial delivery service in North America – with the cargo space of the panel van being in no way restricted by the on-board equipment.
The U.S. administration showed great interest in this technology. On August 12, 2003, for instance, the then Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham visited the development center in Kirchheim/Teck-Nabern, Germany, to inform himself about the status of fuel cell activities at DaimlerChrysler.
Breakthrough in everyday operation
A major challenge in fuel cell development was the improvement of cold-start ability. In the early stages, the water responsible for carrying the protons in the fuel cell froze at temperatures below freezing point. In the spring of 2004, the corporate Research Center in Ulm presented the crucial breakthrough: a cell in which water can no longer freeze thanks to high-precision water-supply management and heat management. They modified the structure of the MEA (Membrane Electrode Assembly) in such a way that the water is kept where it is required for ensuring the fuel cell’s high performance. At the same time, water quantities were reduced to a minimum in areas where freezing may cause damage. Based on this research work, the fuel cell can now be started at temperatures as low as minus 20°C (minus 4°F).
The A-Class F-Cell proves itself
During the Frankfurt International Motor Show in 2003, Mercedes-Benz made three A-Class F-Cell cars available for the press shuttle service. These cars were used to take journalists to the individual trade fair halls.
On June 18, 2004, the first passenger cars powered by fuel cells were handed over to German customers in Berlin. Partners Deutsche Telekom and BEWAG/Vattenfall Europe took delivery of four A-Class
F-Cell cars for their fleets. “With the delivery of the cars for everyday operation, we are entering a new stage in Germany in that the fuel cell technology has left the research status behind,” said Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Board of Management with responsibility for Research and Technology as well as for Development at Mercedes-Benz Cars.
The German chancellor also had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with this advanced technology: in August 2004 the chancellery’s fleet was extended by the addition of an F-Cell car of which the then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder personally took delivery, saying: “The fuel cell is an important contribution toward ensuring sustainable mobility and making it economically and ecologically acceptable - especially against the background of present-day oil prices.”
It went without saying that the cars in Berlin had to be capable of obtaining hydrogen for refueling. Therefore, Europe’s first regular service station for fuel-cell-powered passenger cars started operating here in early 2005. In March 2007 the German Federal Ministry of Transport also took delivery of an A-Class F-Cell vehicle.
Record: Reliable 24-hour operation
On the road for 24 hours with stops just for refueling – this was achieved with an A-Class F-Cell on the test track in Idiada near Barcelona, Spain, in late November 2004. It was the first time a fuel cell car proved itself in endurance testing. The car covered just under 8,500 kilometers (5,300 miles) at an average speed of around 120 km/h (75 mph) – without a hitch.
B-Class with fuel cell drive
In March 2005, the fuel cell drive advanced to the sports tourer category when Mercedes-Benz presented a B-Class car with this progressive propulsion system at the Geneva Motor Show. Its electric motor developed over 100 kW. Thanks to the fuel cell’s reduced hydrogen consumption and improved efficiency, the range doubled to almost 400 kilometers (250 miles).
Practical testing with more than 100 fuel cell vehicles
The largest practical test of fuel cells to date was started in 2003 and involved over 100 fuel cell vehicles of the company, operated throughout the world under the most diverse conditions. The fleet of passenger cars, buses and vans supplied valuable findings for the ongoing development of this promising technology.
On September 1, 2005, DaimlerChrysler and Ford took over the fuel cell business unit from Ballard, Ballard Power Systems AG headquartered in Nabern. The two equal-status partners founded a joint venture, NuCellSys GmbH, which is equally headquartered in Nabern. The company closely cooperates with Ballard in pushing ahead with the development of the fuel cell technology. DaimlerChrysler and Ford concentrate on the integration of fuel cell drive in vehicles, while Ballard engages in the further development and manufacture of fuel cells and electric drive systems for fuel cell vehicles.