Looking at models currently available from Germany’s BMW and Mercedes-Benz, it appears that both carmakers are focusing on battery electric over fuel cell vehicles, but that may not be the long-term plan for either.

Recent interviews with executives at the two brands suggest that BMW and Mercedes are using hybrids and plug-in vehicles as stepping stones, and betting that the strongest future lies with fuel cell technology.

“We stay committed to fuel cells,” said Thomas Weber, member of the board of management of Daimler AG Group Research & Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. “Nobody knows if the hype on the battery-electric vehicle side will pay off. It’s not clear. The range isn’t clear. The future isn’t clear.”

Ironically, one of the weak points Weber lists for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are linked with refueling.

“The cars are quite good,” said Weber. “The weak point is, where can I charge my car?”

At this point, hydrogen refueling stations are also limited. But Weber said that this will soon change around the world.

“Weber insists demand will force fuel suppliers to upgrade their infrastructure,” noted Business Day Live. “Germany has around 50 hydrogen filling stations today and plans to have 400 by 2023, ostensibly to help its car makers meet [European Union] emissions targets.”

Even if a stronger charging infrastructure was created, Mercedes listed other inherent properties of BEVs that will limit the technology’s overall potential.

“Lithium-ion batteries are indeed getting better and better, because that’s what everybody is pushing and so that’s what you keep hearing. But I would not confirm that unconditionally,” explained Daimler’s Chief Environmental Officer Prof. Dr. Herbert Kohler. He also heads the company’s “e-drive and Future Mobility” project.

“A boom in range suggests double the charging capacity but that will not happen with the lithium-ion technology,” he added. “We’re not looking at a 100 percent improvement, it’s going to be 20 percent or 30 percent better than three or five years ago, but that’s all. We predicted exactly that years ago. At the same time we said charging capacity would be the limiting factor. The situation is that we will have a restricted capacity of the cell by the lithium-ion cell technology itself.”

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Mercedes doesn’t have a fuel cell vehicle (FCV) in mass production right now, but it has been testing small batches of its B-Class F-CELL for a couple of years. Last October, one F-CELL set a continuous running record by racking up more than 186,000 miles under normal driving conditions.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell research vehicle was introduced in 2009.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell research vehicle was introduced in 2009.

“The world’s unique and still running test show that fuel cell cars are reliable even under extreme stress and over several years,” said Mercedes.

BMW hasn’t been as public with its fuel cell support until quite recently, but now appears to be launching a strong effort into the research and development of its FCVs. As of the end of last year, BMW’s head of sales and marketing, Ian Robertson, said that limitations with hydrogen fueling stations will outweigh issues with BEV’s charging and range.

“We’ve said we’ll continue to invest in hydrogen and that will result in a small number of production test vehicles being made to prove the technology works,” Robertson said. “The real issues lie not around what we can do, though, but whether the infrastructure can be built up to supply hydrogen in the marketplace cost-effectively.”

But since then, BMW has begun publicly testing an FCV modeled after its high-performance i8 hybrid, and said it’s targeting a 2020 release date for the brand’s first mass-produced hydrogen vehicle.

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“In the past we were asked in interviews what we were doing and were we late in our development. But you don’t always put your development into production and we have been working with fuel cells for 30 years,” said Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s board member in charge of research and development.

BMW’s future strategy – according to BMW Vice President of Powertrain Research Matthias Klietz – is to use fuel cells for powering larger vehicles, position BEVs as the smaller cars and fill in the middle with plug-in hybrids.

“A hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is going to be used for long driving. It can save a lot of power,” said Klietz. “We have categorized it as for a large vehicle, because it will work best if it’s doing long distances – more than 18,000 kilometers [11,185 miles] a year.

“A battery-electric vehicle will be a small vehicle with low to medium range and vehicles with plug-in hybrid or range-extender internal combustion engines will stretch range more. They will be medium to long range cars,” he added.