According to Sascha Simon, head of Advanced Product Planning at Mercedes-Benz USA, the company is on track to launch an updated B-Class F-Cell for 2015 in California, with a “regular” sedan slated to follow in 2017.

However, Mercedes-Benz is adamant that its fuel cell vehicles look and feel like regular passenger cars as much as possible, thus the sedan is likely to be a derivative of the E-Class. The reasoning is that customers are more likely to consider fuel cell vehicles if they’re familiar with the shape and form of the car, despite its method of propulsion.

“We are not intending to build a particular fuel cell sub-brand that looks and feels different,” Simon said. “Our customers would like to drive our E-Class as a fuel cell car. It would work beautifully in a regular sedan shape – normal Mercedes luxury but filled with hydrogen.”

Simon is also convinced that ultimately, hydrogen fuel cell technology “has the potential to take over the internal combustion engine, together with pure battery EVs in their niche.”

However, despite his views, persuading the federal government, particularly Energy Secretary Stephen Chu on the merits of fuel cell technology might prove tougher.

Three years ago, the Obama Administration essentially abandoned a program launched by the preceding U.S. Government which focused on hydrogen fuel cell technology as the de-facto choice for future vehicle propulsion; Chu instead chose to direct efforts into EV and battery development, with the idea it would help wean the U.S. off oil consumption, lower emissions and boost domestic manufacturing.

That said, in recent months, Slate magazine says Chu has apparently softened his stance on fuel cells, according to information gleaned from the incoming chairman of the Department of Energy’s Technical Advisory Committee John Hofmeister. This could help increase viability of the technology as a major future source for vehicle propulsion.

Mercedes-Benz has so far been one of the most significant proponents of fuel cell technology, thanks to developing a slew of concept cars and engineering vehicles. In fact, Simon says that because of the progress made “it is as easy to build a fuel cell car today as an ICE (internal combustion engine) car.” Currently Mercedes-Benz USA has 37 B-Class F-Cell models being leased by Southern California customers and served by several hydrogen fuel cell filing stations. Availability of the B-Class F-Cell, which delivers an estimated EPA driving range of 190 miles and a refueling time of three minutes, will expand to Northern California next month.

Although developing an adequate infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles remains a major obstacle, with little vested interest by oil companies in complimenting existing filling stations with hydrogen pumps; Simon says that a bigger incentive for fuel cells versus EVs; boils down to the cost of fuel stacks relating to electric battery packs.

“If you obviously have a price premium for batteries that is not going down over the next 10 years, I would argue that a pure fuel cell vehicle is more efficient versus a plug-in,” he said. “If you look at the plug-in world right now, the current numbers don’t bode so well. We haven’t seen a drop in prices in batteries we’d like to see.”

Green Car Congress