HANOVER, Germany -- Mercedes-Benz wants to know whether hybrids have a future in its commercial vehicles so it will test both gasoline-electric and diesel-electric powertrains in its top-selling Sprinter van.
The vehicle was one of the company's highlights here at the IAA commercial vehicle show.
"We would like to find out what the benefit really is," said Rolf Bartke, head of Mercedes-Benz vans. "We have to do it to get the answers soon."
Said Eckhard Cordes, formerly the DaimlerChrysler board member in charge of commercial vehicles: "I believe that hybrid engines have a future -- until the fuel cell is ready for series production. And that will take another few years." Cordes took over the Mercedes Car Group October 1.
Parent company DaimlerChrysler has been a major advocate of fuel cell technology and has viewed hybrid vehicles skeptically.
But in February Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche said that the Chrysler group and Mercedes-Benz will produce hybrid cars in the coming years, despite doubts about their high costs and long-term potential.
He said Chrysler will sell an unspecified hybrid car within three years, and Mercedes will produce a hybrid S class -- the brand's biggest and most luxurious model.
Hybrid powertrains combine an electric motor with a gasoline or diesel engine.
German supplier ZF Sachs provides the starter alternator for the six test Sprinters, which Bartke said will be plug-in hybrids. The systems will need to be recharged after traveling 20 miles on electric power.
Bartke said hybrids cost up to $7,500 (currently about E6,100) more per car to produce than a typical gasoline-powered vehicle, but the target is to get the price down to about $5,000 in five to seven years.
While he doesn't think hybrids have a big future in the mass market, he said certain applications make sense. Among these would be a hybrid ambulance that can bring a patient right into the hospital because at low speeds it would be powered by clean electric power. Parcel delivery companies also might want to use hybrids in congested city centers to help improve overall air quality. But few believe a company would change its fleet unless governments either substantially subsidized low- or no-emissions vehicles or mandated that such cars would be the only ones allowed in city centers.
Klaus Maier, executive vice president of M-B's commercial vehicle division, said: "It might come up in the future and we should be ready."
Toyota and Honda have a big lead on competitors when it comes to hybrids. Both automakers are already offering second-generation hybrid-powered passenger cars, but neither automaker has brought a diesel-powered hybrid to market.
M-B will test two Sprinters in Europe, one diesel and one gasoline powered. Three of the four hybrid Sprinters that will be tested in the US are gasoline powered.
– Gerhard Mauerer contributed