The aim now for Daimler and its allies is to ensure that the number of fuel-cell powered vehicles running on generatively produced hydrogen is constantly increasing, demonstrating the market maturity of the fuel cell solution.
"We are building 200 cars for Germany, Norway and the United States this year," Brock said.
Seventy of those will be Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL vehicles going to California. Daimler began manufacturing a small series of this model in late 2009, then quickly decided to make it the first fuel cell passenger car it would mass-produce. It has an operating range of about 250 miles and a 700-bar hydrogen tank, and its electric motor develops an output of 100 kilowatts with a torque of 290 newton meters. The engine's power is similar to that of a 2-liter gasoline engine, and the car has a top speed of 106 mph.
For about $100,000, you get silence and power
"The difference is the silence while you drive; you hear almost nothing from the engine," Brock said. "It also has very powerful acceleration because you have high torque from the beginning. It's very fun driving it."
Daimler won't reveal exactly how much the B-Class F-CELL costs, but industry analysts generally say a fuel cell car costs about $100,000 today. The cars are currently leased by manufacturers at a loss to build public awareness of the technology and to test performance. By 2015, carmakers hope to be able to reduce costs to about $50,000 per vehicle.
The most aggressive is Hyundai, which plans to build 1,000 fuel cell cars already next year and 10,000 per year by 2015. Toyota, Nissan and General Motors have also said they aim to have fuel cell cars for sale to the general public by 2015.
The main technical obstacles to the fuel cell technology used to be range, longevity of the fuel cell and operation at cold temperatures. Fuel cell cars can now start at temperatures below minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, as experiments in Iceland and Norway and during the Vancouver Winter Olympics have shown. The range before refueling has become acceptable, as well, after manufacturers switched to high-pressure 700-bar tanks. But there's still room to improve the lifetime of the fuel cell.
Daimler also makes a fuel cell city bus, the Mercedes-Benz Citaro. It has a hybrid system with fuel cell, electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. It stores 77 pounds of hydrogen in seven cylinders on the roof, which give it a range of 125 miles. The water-cooled lithium-ion batteries have a capacity of 27 kWh, which is sufficient to power the electric motors at a constant 120 kW, or 163 horsepower. The bus emits no pollutants and is almost completely silent, with a top speed of 65 mph.
The 4-minute refueling
Three Citaros operated successfully every day for three years in punishing weather conditions on the streets of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, before the financial crisis and the collapse of the country's biggest banks postponed Iceland's dreams of becoming the world's first hydrogen-powered economy.
Now Iceland says it is more likely that its future vehicle fleet will combine fuel cell vehicles with battery-powered electrics, which suits Daimler just fine.
"We think we will have a mix of vehicles in the future with various powertrain options," Brock said. "That's why we are concentrating on building high-technology combustion engine cars, hybrid cars, as well as electric cars powered either by batteries or fuel cells. The battery-powered cars are good for short trips and city driving. The fuel cell electric cars are better for longer ranges and have shorter refueling times. You can fill a hydrogen tank in three or four minutes."
Fuel cell vehicles have been overshadowed recently by battery electric vehicles. Models like the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt have been launched with great fanfare. Innovative companies like Better Place and Nuvve are testing speedy battery replacement systems and ways to sell power from battery electrics back to the grid, respectively.