December 17, 2008 Mercedes-Benz has put its electric vehicle plans on the table with the announcement of its BlueZERO concept line. The BlueZERO platform is the first Mercedes designed from the ground up to take advantage of an electric drive system - rather than shoe-horning an electric engine into a chassis built around a combustion engine - and Mercedes is hedging its bets with three different energy storage options - the battery-electric E-CELL with a 120 mile range, the hydrogen fuel-cell F-CELL with a 248 mile range, and an extended-range bridging solution, the E-CELL PLUS, which is a battery-electric that uses a petrol generator to provide an extended range of up to 370 miles and easy refueling for longer trips. The lightweight 5-seater vehicle platform houses the drive and energy storage units in a sandwich-floor frame, which makes the cars exceptionally safe, frees up interior and storage room, and centralizes the mass down low for improved handling. Limited production of electric Mercs is set to start around 2010.

Mercedes-Benz have joined most of the major manufacturers in putting forward plans for battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles in the near future. The company's BlueZERO concept is a platform specifically designed to take advantage of different electric drive configurations. Shown here with a spacious, practical family wagon body, the majority of the core drive components are stored in the sandwich-layered floor, opening up the potential to create a range of different body types once the platform is up and running.

In that sandwich floor there's room for one of three different powerplants, each designed for a particular type of customer:

The battery-electric E-CELL is the simplest of the lot. It comes equipped with a lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 35 kilowatt hours (kWh). The liquid-cooled high-voltage cells have an operating voltage of 240 to 426 V. With this battery the BlueZERO E-CELL has an operating range of up to 120 miles. Recharging the empty battery takes three to four hours, and an hour's charge from a standard power socket will get you around 30 miles. The BlueZERO E-CELL accelerates from zero to 62 mph in less than eleven seconds and, in the interests of optimal range and energy efficiency, has an electronically limited top speed of 93 mph.

Where Hydrogen is available, the F-CELL model offers a larger range and quick fill-up capability with its compact fuel cell energy storage. The fuel cell can either deploy energy to charge the battery, or send power directly to the motor. Efficiency is an impressive 97.4 miles per gallon of Hydrogen (priced similarly to petrol) and a full tank will get you over 248 miles according to New European Driving Cycle test conditions. Power output is slightly down from the E-CELL at 90kW.

In order to make the BlueZERO concept a practical vehicle for drivers who need longer range outside a Hydrogen supply grid, Mercedes has designed an "extended-range electric" that attempts to offer the best of both worlds. The E-CELL PLUS is a shorter-range battery-electric capable of a 93-mile range on a battery charge - more than enough for most commuters - but it has an onboard three-cylinder turbo petrol engine that can be used as a generator to charge the battery on the go, giving the car a range of up to 370 miles and the capacity to fill up at any petrol station.

The E-CELL PLUS looks like an excellent bridging solution - most people use their cars for short-range commuting most of the time, with the occasional longer trip. This configuration allows most people the ability to go petrol-free 90% of the time without restricting them on longer trips.

The sandwich-floor design gives the BlueZERO concept a number of advantages from a design perspective - space above the floor is unrestricted by drivetrain, fuel tank or mechanical components, allowing for a roomy and comfortable interior. The heavy battery pack componentry is centralized and kept low in the vehicle, making for excellent stability and handling dynamics. The tough floor frame protects the battery pack or fuel cell from intrusion and puncture in the case of an accident, and isolates any danger from the vehicle's passengers - and as the floor of the vehicle is higher than a standard vehicle, occupants sit higher and in a safer position than other cars in collisions.

"Our modular system allows different drive configurations for every customer requirement," says Dr Thomas Weber, the member of the Daimler AG Board of Management responsible for corporate research and development at Mercedes-Benz Cars. "The modified sandwich-floor platform provides the perfect basis for a wide model range with electric drive systems. We are also developing a new, additional platform for future compact models with power units based on optimized internal combustion engines. The intelligent networking of both architectures enables us to develop our product portfolio extremely flexibly and efficiently. From 2009, we will be producing the first Mercedes fuel-cell cars on a small scale. Small-scale production of Mercedes-Benz cars with battery-electric drive alone will then commence in 2010. This means we are extremely well equipped for the future."

2010 is increasingly shaping up as the launch date for much-anticipated electric vehicles from major manufacturers around the world. Bring on the alternatives, we say!

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