A gull-wing Mercedes has become something of an automotive icon. Visitors to the current Frankfurt show will also have seen it as a vision of the future - an electric one at that.

An electric version of the Mercedes SLS, with a range of around 150 miles (about 240km), will be available and with no significant changes to the body or suspension. The batteries fit in the spaces vacated by the transmission, propshaft, exhaust and fuel tank. Electric motors and controllers will fit under the bonnet and around the rear axle.

Daimler's board member for group research and development, Thomas Weber, said the cost of an electric SRS would be in the region of EUR200,000.

"We are looking at limited numbers," he added.

He is aware that the future is electric but also that achieving the performance of current petrol and diesel vehicles is still some way off. Electric cars for city driving are just around the corner and technology exists to run a car for up to 120 miles (200km) without a top up.

Getting to twice or three times that is still some 20 years away, he believes.

Weber said that while Mercedes develops EVs, it will continue to improve conventional petrol and diesel engines and sees hybrid technology as the next development towards zero emission vehicles.

He said: "Hybrids offer great potential in terms of their flexibility. Pure electric vehicles are still constrained by range and there are many issues still to address in terms of weight and cost. Hybrid technology has now been well established by the Japanese makers and at last week's Frankfurt show we showed the full range of our own hybrid technologies.

"Before we see full electric cars or fuel cell vehicles we need to establish infrastructures. Topping up batteries is straightforward if we charge vehicles slowly overnight. But we need to look at charging stations and how we can top batteries up in much shorter timescales and this requires investment to upgrade the grid. Similarly with hydrogen fuel cells we will need hydrogen filling stations.

"It is clear that the industry has been hit by a huge economic impact but it is also clear that we need to look at this as an opportunity - we need to come out of this stronger and, as head of R&D, I see this as bringing out great products and innovations.

"The key is innovation. Our message is to be the best of the best in all disciplines whether that is performance, the environment or design. We are shooting for tailor-made solutions for all forms of mobility. Innovation in terms of powertrains, safety, environment, accident-free motoring and fascination in terms of looks and driving pleasure."

Weber is confident Mercedes will achieve all EU environmental targets in terms of vehicle emissions across its range of cars. "We have three key strategic directions. Clearly the internal combustion engine has a future but it will become smaller and more efficient. There is no reason why we will not see small four-cylinder engines even in our S-Class models. We continue to make advances in terms of power and torque thanks to turbocharging technology and we are making improvements all the time in terms of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness).

"In the short term we have to develop flexible architectures for petrol, diesel or hydrogen based on an electric drivetrain.

"We can also achieve fuel consumption reductions through transmissions. We will be able to reduce fuel consumption by 5-10% in a comparatively short space of time through using lighter materials and technologies such as double clutches on automatic transmissions. All Mercedes-Benz models will have access to stop-start technology - the roll out has already started."

Weber said it would be some 20 years before a cost-effective electric vehicle could be produced with a range comparable with today's petrol and diesel motors - around 500 miles (800km).

"At the moment we have to look at the best ways to achieve sensible ranges and that will almost certainly come through range extenders, either small, conventional petrol or diesel engines or through hydrogen fuel stacks."

He added that Mercedes would certainly move forward using lithium-ion batteries. "We have looked at nickel-metal hydride but we have found it too expensive and not good enough for us in terms of life cycle. With lithium-ion we are investigating how to improve range and charging times. It is important to find a solution to fast charging, something that will fully charge the battery rather than only a partial charge.

"We are working on ways to fully charge batteries within 30 minutes to an hour and hope to be able to achieve that within the next five years. This is important in terms of extending the range of an EV. If you can charge fully in the time it takes for a coffee stop then this can make a big difference."

Weber is not entirely convinced by Renault-Nissan's plan for 'fast battery drops' where vehicles can stop at special stations to have their batteries exchanged for a fully-charged pack.

"This does have possibilities but it does call for high levels of industry standard, relying on different carmakers to use the same batteries and very similar vehicle architectures. Actually the architecture may not be the biggest issue - batteries, because of their weight, need to be low down and in the middle of the vehicle. Also, who is going to pay for the battery exchange stations?"

Daimler now has a stake in California-based EV-maker Tesla and is jointly developing an electric version of the Smart. The first of an initial test fleet of 1,000 is expected to be on the road late this year.

Weber said he saw the relationship as combining the inventor of the motor car with the "spirit and innovation of a newcomer from Silicon Valley - a company which thinks the unthinkable. Tesla can learn from us while they bring completely new thinking and solutions. They have new ideas and can move quickly. They can help us re-invent the car."

Meanwhile, Weber said Daimler had not lost its focus on safety. "Our goal remains the accident-free vehicle. Every customer only has one life and we are focused on crash performance. It's not just about continually improving crash performance, more on avoiding collisions in the first place.

"We have already established many active ride and handling systems to help drivers - antilock brakes and electronic stability control have now been with us for many years. But we now have emerging technologies such as brake assist and radar, but this has to be balanced against the possibility of litigation. We have to make sure we are working within the laws and not taking away complete control from the driver, rather we are assisting them when things are going wrong.

"The first thing is to warn drivers when things are going wrong or when a collision is about to happen. The systems at this point should assist and support the driver. Eventually when it comes to the point that a collision or accident is unavoidable, then it can take over completely.

"While this might not ultimately avoid the accident, it may mitigate the consequences."

Daimler has maintained its R&D budget at around EUR4.4bn despite the economic crisis and Weber was confident it would remain at that level to the end of 2010. There were cost savings to be made and he said the company would continue work with rival BMW on joint component purchasing.

What is Weber's key to future success for Daimler? "Cost, knowledge and speed - you need to have leadership in all three," he said.

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