Decisions at molecular

Building the right partnerships is as great a challenge as developing technologies to tackle the CO2 problem, believes Daimler’s chief environmental officer and head of group research

With so much focus of late on infotainment and connectivity – the CES show in Las Vegas is becoming a must-attend event for senior R&D figures in the industry – CO2 emissions have almost been overshadowed. 

Not for Professor Herbert Kohler, though. Telematics is one domain that Daimler’s chief environmental officer and head of group research is heavily involved in, and he was there on the company’s show stand. But his remit also takes in lightweight construction and alternative powertrains. The research vehicles that Daimler rolls out every couple of years emerge from his workshops, too. There’s a lot going on.

“Maybe it’s a little astonishing, but 20-30% of my time is spent just taking care of the people working for me and discussing what we should do in the future,” he says. “And then I’m spending another 30-40% on fuel cells. This is a challenging topic. We have big partners with good ideas, but maybe sometimes rather different ideas – I harmonise this and bring everything together.”

Hydrogen fuel cells have long been seen by many in the industry as the ultimate powertrain, making it possible for vehicles to emit nothing more than water vapour and to break the link with fossil fuels. Several cycles of development have promised much but delivered little more than captive fleets and field trials.

But CO2 targets and CAFE regulations are changing the boundary conditions, and the market’s lukewarm reception so far to battery electric vehicles mean that they could succeed this time. Daimler expects them to do so and, as with a growing number of OEMs, it intends to put a fuel cell vehicle into series production within the next few years.

Kohler believes that performance is more than convincing. Consumer acceptance, he says, will be down to affordability: “‘Affordable’ means compared with a high-tech diesel hybrid. We have to solve the problem with cost, but the biggest hurdle I would say is still infrastructure – but this is not our responsibility.”

tags: March 2014 Daimler Emissions Powertrain