It was a chance conversation with someone very senior and credible in the motor industry that completely changed the way I’m thinking about the Frankfurt show.
And then the conversation. The thrust of it was that we all know our future is electric so we might as well stop messing about and get on with it. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that electric cars are on the point of becoming status symbols; some would argue that, with Tesla, they are already there. Moreover, or so the thinking goes, if just one major city denies access to just one of its more prestigious districts to all bar fully electric cars, it will be the first of many dominoes to fall in quick succession around the world. In remarkably little time and for many millions of people, electric car ownership will stop being an impractical extravagence and start becoming a very real necessity.
But what of the twin whammies of range and charging times? The short answer is that both have already improved hand over fist in recent years, the rate will only increase and we’ll put up with and adapt to whatever flaws remain because, compared with being legislated off the road, they don’t really add up to very much.
All of which begs a very interesting question: what about hybrid? The view was that the technology is as a walking stick to an already able-bodied person: a needless impediment that just gets in the way.
Stern stuff, you’ll agree, but even I have long pondered the future of a system that requires a car to carry two completely separate powertrains, neither capable of operating at peak efficiency at the same time and each shouldering the mass of the other when it is not in use. Hybrids add weight, complexity, eat space and natural resources, and I’ve still not driven one that categorically makes the car to which it is attached better to drive.
I don’t know how realistic this vision is, or how long it will take. I can see pure electric powertrains working brilliantly in both small city cars and large luxury limousines, but the Ford Fiestas and VW Golfs of this world too? I think they will be last to the party.
But, for the first time, I was able to see a time when hybrids – at least as we know them today – will have had their day. But there is another kind of hybrid, one that uses a hydrogen fuel cell as its primary source of energy, but in conjunction with a lithium ion battery pack that can be charged from a plug or from energy harvested from braking. This might offer the best of both worlds because, unlike a conventional plug-in hybrid, both technologies drive the same electric motor that powers the car and so are infinitely more harmoniously integrated, not to mention clean. Just such a car will be launched at Frankfurt. The Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell will be a standard production model, it will go on sale to private buyers, can travel 310 miles between fills and, crucially, takes just three minutes to replenish its hydrogen tanks. Sadly, despite the fact it will be built in right hand drive, it will not be sold in the UK – with no meaningful hydrogen infrastructure, customers would have nowhere to fill it.
We always knew petrol/electric hybrids were a bridging technology and the question was always how long the bridge would be. From what I’ve heard and what I expect to see in Frankfurt, they are going to be around for a while yet.