Don’t Count on It

In late March, Dieter Zetsche’s words on electric transportation and the future of fuel cells caused quite a stir in the automotive industry. During the auto motor und sport conference on March 27 in Stuttgart, the head of Daimler was asked about what type of electric transportation his company would favor over the coming years. Instead of the short reply one would expect, he went on to give a long answer to the question and it seemed to have given rise to wildly different interpretations.

Before the day was over, a headline on T-Online read: “Daimler says goodbye to hydrogen.” In the article, it said: “The fuel cell is now no longer a central part of Daimler’s renewable strategy.” As proof, the web portal offered a quote by Zetsche himself: “I believe one would be well advised to focus on battery-electric vehicles over the next ten years.” But the second half of the sentence – clearing up the misunderstanding – had been omitted (see long quote Daimler Stays).

About the benefits of fuel cells – greater range and faster refueling – T-Online wrote: “Recent developments in battery technologies have reduced those advantages. Whereas batteries are getting ever cheaper, hydrogen production is as expensive as ever.” But ultimately, the article ended with the conclusion that “fuel cells remain an interesting technological option.”

A day later, Automobil Produktion wrote: “Daimler head Zetsche says fuel cell has few benefits.” In the article, it said: “Fuel cells are no longer at the heart of Daimler’s alternative engine strategy.”

In early April, iwr.de wrote: “Daimler and Vaillant turn their backs on fuel cells.” golem.de even speculated about a possible end to the 2013 fuel cell agreement between Daimler, Ford and Renault-Nissan.

The high point, though, was the “Obituary for the Fuel Cell” published in the Wirtschaftswoche business magazine just before Hannover Messe – death notice included (see Daimler Stays). The authors chose somewhat melodramatic phrases such as: “Hydrogen technology: Rest gently.”

The opinion piece by editors Martin Seiwert and Stefan Hajek did show knowledge of the industry, but left no doubt as to their love for battery-driven electric transportation and their dislike of fuel cells, saying that the automotive industry “paid dearly for its fuel cell mistake.” They deemed Elon Musk a “genius who is very much alive and well,” while “the pretty engineering vision of fuel cell use collides with hard economic facts.”

The authors’ statement that “the electric car has meanwhile caught up with FCEVs regarding range and total environmental impact” seems a bit premature. As does the claim that battery vehicles were “much cheaper.”

When H2-international asked Wirtschaftswoche who’s digging the fuel cell’s grave, Seiwert replied: “We are, based on the reasons and conclusions we presented in our article. Mister Zetsche has said the right thing; others aren’t that courageous, since they have invested billions in the technology.” And the “year of birth” was given as 1966 (see obituary: Daimler Stays) because that was the year General Motors had unveiled its first fuel cell car.

Journalists seem to use increasingly drastic language and ever more dramatic phrases in their reporting and they have been right on target. The hydrogen and fuel cell community seemed very uneasy during Hannover Messe (see Confident About Upcoming Commercialization); despite an overall positive mood at the industrial fair, the above-mentioned news did dampen enthusiasm quite a bit.

Even Daimler’s press office was surprised – not by Zetsche’s statement, but by the news that followed. It offered a clarification to H2-international, saying that there “have been no changes to our current strategy. […] We need hydrogen. […] Daimler sees a future for the fuel cell.”

In the end, the carmaker will stick with its plan to unveil a new FCEV, the GLC F-CELL, this year and start production in small numbers (presumably around 1,000 units in 2018).

However, it is no longer about Daimler, even if the carmaker’s Stuttgart press office appreciated Hydrogeit Verlag publishing a correction on its HZwei blog.

Zetsche’s words and their differing interpretations made it clear that the battle about which was the better, more future-proof technology has already been raging for a while – despite statements to the contrary. For a long time, politicians and NOW have tried to pass off electric transportation as a joint project of battery and fuel cell suppliers. But the fact of the matter is that the potential revenue streams mean everyone will use any means necessary to up their market share. The Wirtschaftswoche editors have realized that.

Whoever or whatever provided the impetus for their opinion piece, their article will only be the first in an ugly fight between battery and fuel cell advocates, something that has already been on full display on social media.

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