WASHINGTON - DaimlerChrysler is aiming to have its first fuel-cell-powered Mercedes-Benz cars come to market at about the same price as conventionally powered vehicles. The fuel-cell cars are due in five years.
Ferdinand Panik, DaimlerChrysler senior vice president, said at a fuel-cell conference here that the cars will be introduced at prices 10 percent to 15 percent higher than comparable vehicles with internal combustion engines.
But at that level, government incentives would push the final price down to the same level as today's gasoline engines - or lower.
The federal government offers a 10 percent tax credit on the purchase price of an electric vehicle, up to a maximum of $4,000. The law includes fuel cell in the definition of electric power. In addition, some state and local governments, including New York and air quality management districts in California, offer more incentives.
The federal credit is scheduled to begin being phased out in 2002, before fuel cells get to market, but President Clinton has proposed an extension at the maximum level until 2006.
Organizations representing electric-vehicle and fuel-cell industries are pushing for longer extensions.
Most pure-electric vehicles on the market today are leased. In those cases, manufacturers collect the credits and pass them along in lower lease prices, provided the lessee is not a tax-exempt organization.
FIRST TO GET FUEL CELLS
Panik, in comments to reporters after appearing at the fuel-cell conference, also renewed his forecast that DaimlerChrysler will have fuel-cell powered cars on sale in Europe, Japan and California in 2004.
Fuel-cell power will go first into the subcompact Mercedes A class, he said, but that does not mean the company will reverse course and offer the A class in the United States. He said the fuel cells could be adapted relatively easily for other models.
Others in the industry, citing the history of battery-powered electric vehicles and the obstacles to bringing new technology to market, were unwilling to discuss likely retail prices for fuel cells or were privately skeptical of Panik's prediction.
Firoz Rasul, president of Ballard Power Systems, a fuel-cell company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, said pricing is a chicken-and-egg problem.
'Somebody says, you know, 'I'll buy the unit if you can give it to me at a certain cost.' And I say, 'You give me the volume and I'll give you the price.' '
Rasul said current government incentives are useful but said he would like to see 'a more clear statement of support for newer technology' and more incentives, such as Japan's subsidies for new fueling facilities.
METHANOL SHOWS PROMISE
While fuel cells, in theory, can produce electricity from a wide variety of substances that contain hydrogen, including gasoline, many fuel cell supporters say methanol, made from natural gas, is most promising.
Ross Witschonke, president of Ecostar Electric Drive Systems, which is developing drivetrains for fuel cells, told the conference, 'Methanol is the way to get this technology on the road.'
Ecostar is a joint venture of Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and Ballard.
The conference was organized by the American Methanol Institute.
Robert Brenner, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA, said fuel cells obviously would help vehicles meet tougher environmental goals.
But, he added, the administration intends for the rules to be 'fuel neutral' - that is, designed not to favor any fuel over others.
Likewise, Dirk Forrister, chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force, said the administration wants the marketplace ultimately to decide what technologies will be the powerplants of the future.
Still, he observed, after carefully studying fuel cells, his explanation of how they work is this: 'You put fuel in one side, and electricity comes out the other. It's magic.'