Mercedes-Benz Unveils Fuel-Cell Sprinter Van Concept

Mercedes hasn't given up on hydrogen.

Daimler AG – Product Communications Mercedes-Benz Vansphoto by Deniz Calagan on behalf of Daimler AG—Daimler AG

In the battle to reduce vehicular emissions, there are two main weapons of choice: batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Mercedes-Benz has already confirmed plans for a line of battery-electric cars and battery-powered versions of the Sprinter and Vito vans. In addition to these hybridized efforts, the German automaker's new Concept Sprinter F-Cell shows that Mercedes hasn't given up on fuel cells either.

The rear-wheel-drive Concept Sprinter F-Cell's powertrain produces 147 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Three tanks mounted under the floor can store enough hydrogen for 300 kilometers (186 miles) of driving, according to Mercedes. Another tank can be added to the rear of the vehicle, boosting range to 500 km (310 mi), the automaker said, but that's not all.

Like the hydrogen-powered Mercedes-Benz GLC variant, the Concept Sprinter F-Cell also features a small battery pack to supplement the fuel cells, adding 30 km (18 mi) of range. That makes the Concept Sprinter a plug-in hybrid, but using a combination of fuel cells and batteries instead of an internal-combustion engine and electricity.

The Concept Sprinter F-Cell was configured as a motorhome to show off the packaging advantages of its alternative-fuel powertrain. With the tanks positioned under the floor and the fuel-cell stack mounted in the front where a gasoline or diesel engine would normally go, there is plenty of interior space to work with. Per Mercedes, the fuel-cell setup could be made to work with a variety of body styles. 

But will a fuel-cell van ever go into production? Mercedes parent Daimler claims to be agnostic on powertrain technologies.

"Daimler strategy does not provide a dogmatic, ideological answer to this question but instead makes it dependent upon the best possible customer benefits," the company said in a statement.

Yet the company's current plans indicate a lower level of confidence in fuel cells. While Mercedes has committed to putting the battery-powered eSprinter into mass production, it did not confirm production plans for the Sprinter F-Cell. Mercedes is planning a limited production run of the GLC F-Cell, so it's possible the van could be churned out in small numbers as well. Both models also use battery packs to supplement their fuel cells.

Mercedes may be sincerely willing to explore all options. It may just be finding that hydrogen isn't the best bet. While lack of fueling infrastructure remains a major problem for fuel-cell vehicles, the number of charging stations for battery-electric vehicles has steadily grown. However, this may be less of an issue for commercial vehicles operating on set routes near designated terminals, so fuel-cell vans like the Sprinter F-Cell might have a future.