This revolution will be Facebooked live, but will anybody care?
The blue strobe lights, the pulsing pop music, the smoke and then, from the darkness: another electric car, coming soon. Have we not seen this before? The Generation EQ drove onstage at the Paris motor show, the first model in a new all-electric automotive brand launched by Mercedes-Benz.
The date of the electric-automobile revolution has been rescheduled, now pencilled in for 2025.
"A warm welcome to those watching us on Facebook Live," said Dieter Zetsche, the boss of Mercedes-Benz. On this day, he stood onstage in Paris eschewing the usual black suit – wearing instead a blue blazer, jeans and sneakers – and promised revolution: at least 10 all-new, all-electric vehicles wearing the EQ badge from Mercedes by 2025.
The first of these, the SUV previewed by the Generation EQ concept, will arrive in 2019, with a range of 500 kilometres per charge and a price of about $45,000. It will arrive at the same time as and be a direct rival to Tesla's Model 3. If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of people who placed a deposit for that car, you might want to think about getting it back.
"We are launching a whole new brand for all of our electrification efforts and we are convinced now is the time to flip the switch," Zetsche said.
Combined with Volkswagen Group's commitment to have 30 electric vehicles on sale across its brands by 2025, it seems clear electric vehicles will finally become mainstream, ubiquitous and affordable over the next 10 years.
"Our goal is to have these make up between 15 and 25 per cent of our global sales by 2025," Zetsche said. "That, of course, also depends on the continued development of infrastructure and customer preferences."
For its part, Volkswagen estimates it will sell two or three million EVs annually by 2025.
Why is Zetsche convinced now is the time to "flip the switch" and launch Mercedes-Benz's EV offensive?
For one, Mercedes is in a good place. Zetsche said the company has nearly achieved its goal to regain the number one spot in the premium-car segment by 2020. BMW's ambitious i sub-brand has gone quiet and its future appears uncertain. After the radical i3 and i8 went on sale, the lineup hasn't filled out any further. Audi will surely be affected by the fallout from the diesel-emissions cheating scandal by its parent company, VW Group. According to recent estimates, it could cost the company around $15-billion (U.S.).
For another thing, Mercedes thinks EV technology is ready to rival gas-powered cars.
Jurgen Schenk was among the most in-demand interview subjects at the Paris show. He is the director responsible for integrating electric powertrains into Mercedes vehicles.
The man was having a busy day, and he's about to have a busy decade.
Battery technology is constantly getting better. "The improvement is about 14 per cent, per year," Schenk said. "[Improvement has] been steady for six years, and we expect it to be steady for the next 10 as well."
Mercedes has dabbled with electric cars before, with the Smart fortwo Electric Drive and the B-Class EV. However, both are gas-powered cars retrofitted to run on electricity. The B-Class was a collaboration with Tesla, using Tesla's motors and batteries.
Because Mercedes has decided to create a range of electric cars under a new brand, it's developing its own EV technology in-house. It's unlikely the collaboration with Tesla will continue. In Paris, Zetsche announced Mercedes will spend €1-billion to expand its battery-production facilities in Germany. "We were sure that if we want to be one of the market leaders we have to understand the technology ourselves," Schenk said.
Mercedes was waiting for the right time to launch its own EVs. To hear Schenk tell it, they started with a long list of difficult questions. How energy dense are batteries? How efficient are electric motors? How heavy are batteries? What are government regulators planning to do in China, America, Europe? What is the impact on the environment? What do customers want?
"Once we had the answer, yes, there is a chance to compete on a level with existing [combustion-engine] technology – and even a chance to be better – then we made the decision, we have to transform our business."
SUVs and supercars
With two electric motors, one at each axle, the Generation EQ will have AMG-levels of performance. Mercedes claims 516 lb-ft of torque, and a 0-100 km/h time of less than five seconds. And this from an entry-level SUV. And the Generation EQ concept is just the tip of the electric iceberg.
Schenk said all of the first 10 EQ models will ride on the same platform, developed from the ground up for electric drivetrains.
"There isn't a space for exhaust pipes," Schenk said about the new platform. "There isn't a chance to put a V-8 engine in the same vehicles."
The platform's length and width can be adjusted to suit all kinds of vehicles, from SUVs to compact cars, sports cars, from Smart to S-Class.
There could also be an electric EQ supercar in the cards, too.
"We can imagine – also in the same platform – a very high-performance powertrain, yes," Schenk said. This fits with reports Mercedes wants a flagship supercar to rival the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Bugatti and capitalize on its Formula One success.
Like batteries, charging technology is improving, too. In addition to cable-free inductive charging solutions for garages, Mercedes says fast-charge fill-ups will soon be possible. The Combined Charging System (CCS) standard allows for 50 to 150-kW charging. In the future, 300 kW should be possible. With that, you could get enough charge for 100 kilometres in five minutes.
It can be hard to still get excited about electric cars. They're hardly new.
Electric vehicles have seemed three years away for a long time. When Toyota announced its first Prius gas-electric hybrid in 1997, EVs were right around the corner. When Tesla started taking orders for the Model 3, it was still years away. "Liberté, Egalité, E-Mobilité," was Mercedes' tagline at the 2010 Paris motor show. In 1996, when GM put the electric EV1 on sale, the future was here. Then all of them were crushed. An electric-car company, Fisker, has already come and gone bankrupt, despite the fact Justin Bieber bought one.
It's partly our fault. The media cries wolf every time there's any electric-car news. It's all over Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, podcasted and announced to death. The future! Range anxiety! Plug-ins! "Affordable" $30,000 compact cars, after government rebate. The news doesn't resonate because electric vehicles are still too far removed from the day-to-day driving and new-car needs of most consumers. Electric cars can seem like a solution to a problem that doesn't yet exist; climate change can feel like an abstract and distant issue when you're in a new-car dealership thinking about monthly payments. It isn't, of course.
So, we won't make the same mistake again here. The announcement in Paris of a line of electric vehicles from Mercedes under the EQ brand is news because it means Benz is getting serious about a future full of electric cars; it will be much bigger news in 2019 when the first of them are on the road.