Electric avenue

Electric avenue

Many vehicle manufacturers took the opportunity afforded by the spotlight on COP17 to launch and showcase various environmentally friendly products and initiatives. Not to be outdone, Mercedes-Benz hosted a day to make journalists salivate. GAVIN MYERS was one of them…

The morning traffic is gridlocked. Bumper to bumper, a seemingly endless line of vehicles snakes its way up the M1 and onward to the horizon. The only way to go is forward, inch by frustrating inch – as has been the case for longer than Joburg’s commuters would care to remember. Yet recently the silence has been almost deafening. The very air which, all those years ago, was heavy with carbon monoxide, diesel particles and countless other toxins is crisper, clearer, fresher.

It’s surreal. The older generation (that would be us) regale the youngsters sitting beside them with “I remember the days when petrol cost R10 a litre” stories. Petrol? What’s that?

It doesn’t exist in this world; what Mercedes-Benz defined as “lane three” of its modular drive mix at its Road to the Future event way back at year-end 2011, at the same time Durban was hosting COP17 (the 17th Conference of the Parties) – with the world’s attention fixed on the hope for real solutions to combat climate change.

Well, that’s what I’d imagine things to be like at some point in the future, anyway. Yet the future is now for Mercedes-Benz (though by no means exclusively). The company has made great inroads to that future ideal, with its modular drive mix – among many other initiatives – leading the way.

This modular drive mix is what Mercedes sees as shaping the face of road traffic for years to come: a three lane road towards zero emissions. The first lane is its most immediate solution: making the current internal combustion engine as efficient, high-tech and green as possible, along with specific vehicle optimisation initiatives in areas such as aerodynamics, lightweight design and energy management. Lane two for Mercedes is the implementation of hybrid drive technology; with, as you may have already gathered, lane three being electric mobility, whether battery or fuel cell powered.

Dr Martin Zimmerman, Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) president and CEO, said: “In line with our parent company Daimler, we want to provide our South African customers with fuel-efficient and environmentally sustainable vehicles. We’re making our green cars more exciting, as well as our trucks greener.”

Of course, that strategy has been implemented throughout the Mercedes range – which we were lucky enough to enjoy. BlueEFFICIENCY is the company’s umbrella initiative for weight, aerodynamic, rolling resistance, energy management and powertrain optimisation, resulting in significant gains in power and fuel economy. And with those vehicles representing the entire Mercedes range us journalists were somewhat spoiled for choice. Especially so when told we’d be driving some special vehicles: the electric B-Class F-CELL and Smart Fortwo ED and Vito E-CELL.

Obviously representing lane three, these are the cars Mercedes is confident we’ll be driving soon.

merc_2“Electric mobility is certainly feasible and has long since passed the show car stage,” noted Zimmerman. In an effort to prove that point, three B-Class F-CELL vehicles (one of which we were able to sample) were driven on a 125-day trip around the world, covering four continents, 14 countries and 30 000 km. But how are these cars to drive? Can they live with the daily commute? The short answer is yes; quite easily. Whether we’re talking about the 30 kW electrically-powered Smart ED (Electric Drive), the 100 kW B-Class F-CELL (fuel cell, essentially meaning hydrogen is used to create power for the electric motor) or the 60 kW Vito E-CELL (the first van of its kind to roll off the series production line in Vittoria, Spain, along with other run of the mill Vitos) each is as capable as its conventional counterpart. Performance and drivability are easily on par and eerily silent, too.

Unfortunately, none of these vehicles will be available in South Africa any time soon – the costs and infrastructure making it far too unrealistic at this stage. For example, the lithium-ion (Li-io) battery for an electric vehicle the size of the Smart costs almost as much as the standard car. Daimler is developing its own batteries and that will hopefully drive the costs down.

At this point, sitting in traffic yet again, you find yourself thinking it can’t only be the demise of the internal combustion engine and subsequent silent whirr of electric motors around you that’s changed our inner city environment for the better. And you’d be right, because last year Mercedes-Benz’s premises and manufacturing plants were already, as Zimmerman put it, “representing tangible evidence of our commitment and passion for the environment”.

Shortly after moving to its 15 hectare Zwartkops head office in 1998 a large-scale dam reclamation and indigenous replanting exercise was undertaken to create a balanced, natural indigenous habitat for birds, fish and small animals. In 2007, MBSA was the first commercial buyer of green electricity from the City of Tshwane, sourced from renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind and solar power and by burning bagasse (fibrous sugar cane matter).

At MBSA’s East London plant its carbon footprint has been reduced well ahead of Daimler’s targets for its manufacturing facilities. “The environmental implications of the saving in kilowatts of electricity translates to a reduction of over 28 000 tonnes – or 32 percent – of CO² over the past three years alone,” said Zimmerman. Some of the measures implemented include energy efficient lighting, solar-heated water, reusing pre-conditioned air and optimising temperature parameters, improving insulation, optimising plant operations and shutdown times and implementing energy-efficient equipment.

The company’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, particularly in the East London area, where it was awarded the Environmental Excellence Award in recognition of its efforts in environmental management in 2008 and the Eastern Cape Top Green Organisation Award in 2009.

“In addition, we take a preventative approach to environmental protection by systematically including all stages of the vehicle manufacturing process and complete product lifecycle – from development to recycling,” said Zimmerman. “Our aim is to eliminate all identified risks to the environment.”

Water, used in a number of operations, is used with particular responsibility: in 2009 a 40 percent reduction in water usage per vehicle was achieved compared with previous years. For example, the introduction of water-based paints in the C-Class manufacturing plants has shown environmental benefits due to reduced volatile organic components. There are also various other measures to further recycle and clean waste water before it’s released.

“We fully realise the manufacturing of vehicles at our East London plant has the potential to protect our environment and that we have to act responsibly. We’re integrating the management systems for quality, environmental protection and OHS into a single system,” Zimmerman said. “As a responsible business we can’t ensure a sustainable future without having effective environmental management in place to shape our operations.”

Yes, thanks to companies such as Mercedes-Benz, changing the face of our environment by introducing ever better environmentally aware products and processes will eventually occur. Unfortunately, as green as motoring is likely to be one day, one question will probably never be answered: What to do about that traffic?

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