30 November 2020
30 November 2020
Three events define the history of the automobile. Gottlieb Daimler’s pioneering work in the development of the internal combustion engine. Karl Benz’s creation of the world’s first practical motor car. And US industrialist Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, which brought personalised mobility to the masses.
Driven by climate change, advanced technology and a rising interest in sustainability, it’s obvious that we’re on the verge of another major turning point concerning the future of mobility. The convergence of electric vehicle powertrains and autonomous driving technology means that the car as we know it is changing in fundamental ways.
To better understand how cars are expected to evolve over the next 25 years, we sat down with Mercedes-Benz Australia’s Head of Product Marketing and CASE, Andre Dutkowski.
Megatrends shaping the future of the car
The CASE acronym in Dutkowski’s business title stands for Connected, Autonomous, Shared Services and Electric, which as Dutkowski explains are four megatrends shaping the future of the automobile.
“I guess it’s safe to say that the future of mobility will be electric, and that is super exciting. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are now moving over to electric cars,” begins Dutkowski. He adds that the second trend is connectivity, or how our vehicles integrate comfort, safety and entertainment.
“Connectivity allows us to offer cool services that customers will love. For instance, customers will be able to drop off or receive packages in the trunk of their car, so DHL or Australia Post will be able to drop off a package I’m expecting in my trunk overnight in front of my house.”
The third megatrend involves shared services, which Dutkowski explains goes back to the assumption that future generations might be less likely to own vehicles.
“If I think of my son, he just turned 20, he couldn’t care less about owning a car. He just wants to get from A to B. Unfortunately, he doesn’t share my passion for cars, but he is a good example of that generation, which tends to be very pragmatic when it comes to vehicle ownership. These guys want to share their cars, they want to have access to mobility, whatever their mobility requirements are.”
“When we talk about motoring in 25 years’ time, I expect we will be driving autonomous vehicles.”
The final megatrend is autonomous vehicles, the arrival of which Dutkowski notes has been slightly delayed.
“Five years ago, many OEMs were bragging about the fact that by 2020 they’d have a fully autonomous, certified car in the market. But it simply took all of us a bit longer to really make this technology bulletproof and safe.
“I guess it’s fair to say that it took the industry a bit longer to get from 98 per cent to 100 per cent than we all thought it would take. But obviously when it comes to safety, we cannot compromise anything, or make short cuts, and we need to get the technology right.
“But it will be coming and when we talk about motoring in 25 years’ time, I expect we will be driving autonomous vehicles.”
How Ambition 2039 will make sustainable cars a reality
Charting the direction for Mercedes-Benz’s journey into the future is a corporate strategy document titled ‘Ambition 2039,’ which Dutkowski explains is “front and centre in all the decisions we make.”
“It outlines the challenges we have and how we as a global company can be part of the solution.”
“Ambition 2039 aims for the decarbonisation of our products and our production. By 2039 we want to be 100 per cent carbon neutral in terms of production and product,” says Dutkowski.
A tangible example of this new ethos is Factory 56 in Stuttgart, the first of a new breed of plants that will help facilitate the transition to carbon-free manufacturing.
“By 2022 we want to make this a blueprint across all the European plants of Mercedes-Benz, and between 2022 and 2029 this will be the blueprint for all our factories across the globe.”
These clean-green car factories will rely on renewable energy sources such as hydro and solar power, while at the same time increasing the share of recycled materials to a ratio of up to 85 per cent, says Dutkowski.
The key technologies that will power cars in the future
“Even more exciting is the product side. By 2039 we want to exclusively offer either electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and/or plug-in hybrid vehicles.
“That is obviously a huge paradigm shift for the inventor of the automobile. We’ve been doing internal combustion engine cars for the last 130 years and in less than 20 years we now want to move away from that.”
But with each generation of new vehicles lasting roughly seven years, “it’s obvious we need to start already,” says Dutkowski, adding that today’s Mercedes-Benz customers still have a wide range of internal combustion powertrains to choose from, but can also now consider mild hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars.
“We have three key technologies in the market. The first is EQ Boost, which is a mild hybrid. The main propulsion system is still a combustion engine, but it’s supported by a mild hybrid, which helps to improve fuel efficiency. That is a technology we introduced three years ago, and which really helps to improve fuel efficiency. However, it doesn’t allow people to drive fully electric.
“By 2039 we want to exclusively offer either electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and/or plug-in hybrid vehicles.”
“The second technology is EQ Power, a plug-in hybrid technology (featuring a combustion engine plus battery-electric powertrain), which does allow customers to drive fully electric.
“Our current A 250e is the latest of a breed of plug-in hybrids we are launching. The Mercedes-Benz A 250e is the first plug-in hybrid in the compact segment and allows up to 70km of fully electric driving, which is more than sufficient for 80 to 85 per cent of our customers.
“The third technology is what we call EQ, or battery electric vehicles. These cars don’t come with an internal combustion engine and drive fully electric, like the EQC 400 with its current range of around 400km.”
Dutkowski goes on to explain that the goal for the next few years is to expand EQ Boost and EQ Power across all major vehicle segments, while also rolling out additional EQ electric models, so that by 2025 customers will be able to choose the body type they want and their choice of propulsion system.
In terms of new models Mercedes has confirmed that the EQC 400 launched in December 2019 is the first of a range of electric vehicles scheduled to be introduced in the next two to three years.
“That will eventually give us seven all-electric vehicles, covering say 90 per cent of the major segments here, and then in five years’ time we will have covered pretty much every segment,” says Dutkowski.
Beyond batteries, why hydrogen is such a tantalising prospect
“The road map for the next 25 years is that mobility will certainly be electric, possibly powered by hydrogen technology as well, which is another very, very promising technology that we shouldn’t rule out.”
As Dutkowski explains, hydrogen-powered electric cars are an alternative to battery-electric, where instead of being recharged by plugging into an electrical charge point, hydrogen is used as an energy source to create electricity via a chemical reaction inside a fuel cell fitted to the car.
He believes the technology will evolve and emerge as a viable alternative to battery electric, because it brings together the very fast refuelling times of today’s combustion engines, with the environmentally conscious potential of electric vehicles.
“You can refuel a hydrogen fuel cell within two to three minutes, which then gives you 400 to 500km of range. One concern customers tend to have (with battery electric vehicles) is charging times, and while I think the charging times of electric vehicles will come down massively in the next two to three years, hydrogen technology is even more promising,” he says.
Mercedes-Benz currently has one hydrogen-powered car, the GLC F-Cell which is a small-series production model built for the German and Japanese markets, but Dutkowski says there is “more work to be done in regards to infrastructure” before hydrogen-powered cars are a common sight on Australian roads.
The same challenges exist with battery electric cars to a lesser degree. One company busily rolling out the infrastructure to enable Australia’s electric vehicle future is Chargefox, the country’s leading provider of EV charging solutions.
Chargefox CEO Marty Andrews says the company’s mission is simple: “we want to power transport with renewable energy,” adding that part of the solution to addressing climate change is to simply “electrify everything and then power it with renewables.”
“With transport representing about 19 per cent of Australia’s emissions, a shift to EVs powered by renewables is one of the big chunks that can be tackled,” says Andrews.
“Most of the industry research that we see suggests there are three factors that affect EV uptake. They are price, range and infrastructure.
“We set out trying to help solve the infrastructure piece. We’re trying to make charging simple for people in all walks of life, whether they’re on a long road trip, or don’t have off-street parking and want to charge near home, or they live in an apartment.
“Price and range really fall down to the manufacturers. But I think in Australia the biggest barrier by far is price. The parts of the world where there’s been significant uptake of EVs has had governments that have led the way with subsidies and various incentives to help these cars get off the ground.”
More affordable electric cars will become mainstream
Dutkowski agrees that currently electric vehicles tend to be more expensive than combustion engine equivalents, but that, “in the next few years we’ll see cost parity when it comes to the production of electric vehicles, and that will obviously help the consumer price of these cars.”
“We have to do our homework, we need to get production prices down on these electric vehicles and that comes down to the batteries, which are currently the cost drivers. But we are positive that costs will come down significantly in the next two to three years,” he says.
“I think it’s really exciting, if we have millions of cars every day moving energy throughout our cities... The roads become the electricity grid of the future.”
As costs come down, and as range and infrastructure improves, both Dutkowski and Andrews believe it is inevitable that electric vehicles will become the dominant vehicle of choice. This then raises another issue that Chargefox is actively working on – demand management, or how the electricity grid will cope.
“You might have seen commentary that, ‘if everyone has electric cars, the grid won’t cope,”’ says Andrews.
“So, we are working with the (electricity) retailers to understand how we can manage the demand of charging. The simple example here is, ‘it’s the middle of summer, it’s 40-degrees, you come home, you plug in your car and turn on your air-con.’ If everyone does that at scale, we’ve got a problem. But because your car is plugged in, probably until six or seven the next morning when you head off to work, you’ve got a big window in which you can actually charge, and we can shift the demand to a different point in the evening so that the grid is fine.”
Paul Sernia, one of the founders of Brisbane-based company Tritium, a global leader in the design and manufacture of ‘direct current’ (DC) fast chargers, agrees with this scenario.
“I don’t believe (the grid) will need to be upgraded. I don’t believe we’ll need to build more power plants to power electric vehicles. What we’ll really see is that charging will happen as a managed process.
“I think the other really interesting thing we will see in the future is bi-directional charging in vehicles.”
Paul believes bi-directional charging, or the opportunity for electric cars to become part of our national power grid by feeding power back to the grid from their vehicle battery and vice versa, will enable people to unlock their vehicles, not just as transport assets but also as energy assets.
“I think it’s really exciting, if we have millions of cars every day moving energy throughout our cities. I call it the internet of mobile energy. The roads become the electricity grid of the future.”
Redefining the driving experience forever
Dutkowski has long been an advocate for electric vehicles from an environmental perspective, but he’s also now a total convert to the EV driving experience, citing the EQC 400’s instant torque and near silent driving as his newfound definition of driving pleasure.
“It’s never been more exciting, both for us in the industry, but also for our customers, with all these changes coming. And again, it goes back to these four megatrends we are experiencing: Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Electric.”
By Ged Bulmer