STUTTGART - DaimlerChrysler has set a price target for its first fuel-cell car - even though its launch is still five years away. The car is likely to be a version of the Mercedes-Benz A-class.
Ferdinand Panik, head of D/C's fuel-cell group, believes consumers will refuse to pay premium prices for environmentally friendly cars.
'A fuel-cell car should have a competitive price tag,' he said. 'Therefore, we believe it should cost about the same as a similar-sized diesel model.'
In Germany, a diesel-powered A160GDI retails for about DM35,000 (euro 17,730).
Panik said if D/C cannot meet its price target for the fuel-cell car, it will add luxury features such as such as air conditioning or an in-car refrigerator as standard. 'These features benefit from the application of fuel-cell technology (which generates electricity),' he said.
Panik spoke to Automotive News Europe at DaimlerChrysler's innovation symposium, held here last month. As part of the integration of former Daimler-Benz and Chrysler activities, all fuel-cell research and development activities are now concentrated in Stuttgart.
'Because metropolitan areas benefit most from lower C02 emissions, the use of fuel-cell technology in (a city car such as) the A-class is most likely,' he said. 'The A-class is also perfectly suited because of its double-floor platform concept.'
D/C has already previewed an A-class-based fuel-cell concept called the NECAR 4 (New Electric Car). It takes advantage of the deep 1/8sandwich' cavity between the floor of the A-class and the bottom of the car to house the fuel-cell equipment. On earlier versions that equipment was big enough to fill the storage space of a van.
D/C is working on fuel-cell technology with Ford and Canada's Ballard Power Systems. Panik said the three partners have already set up two joint ventures devoted to fuel-cell development. Ballard also supplies fuel cells to Honda and Nissan. General Motors and Toyota are two other companies sharing fuel-cell research.
In the new technology, hydrogen from fuels such as natural gas, gasoline and methanol is combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity without combustion in a fuel cell.
D/C has committed itself to bringing a fuel-cell car to market by 2004. Honda and Toyota have also said they will launch fuel-cell cars at about the same time. D/C has already invested DM300 million (euro 151.9 million) in fuel-cell development, and will spend another DM700 million over the next few years.
So far, D/C has not set sales targets for its fuel-cell car. Panik and Klaus-Dieter Voehringer, D/C's board member responsible for research and development, said the fuel-cell market will start with a few thousand units in 2004, but will increase to 50,000 or 100,000 a year by the end of the decade.
By 2020, 'our conservative prediction is that at least 7 percent of the world's car production volume will be made up of fuel-cell cars,' Panik said. 'But optimistic estimates speak of 20 percent.'
Panik said D/C won't use pure hydrogen as an alternative fuel source since no suitable fuel-tank systems are currently available. 'That could take another 30 to 40 years,' he said. There are also difficulties associated with the storage and distribution of hydrogen.
But with laws insisting on cleaner cars, companies are studying interim solutions whereby hydrogen might be extracted from other sources to power cleaner - though by no means totally green - cars.
Panik confirmed D/C has decided to concentrate on methanol. 'Although not as clean as pure hydrogen, a fuel-cell engine running on reformed methanol still has about 30 percent lower CO2 emissions (than a gasoline engine),' he said. 'But the world's energy reserves are running out so we must think of hydrogen in the long term.' Methanol is an oil-based alcohol product.
Panik also said methanol is currently the most suitable solution because the existing infrastructure of fuel stations can be used.