These days, it seems that every automaker has at least one (or several) purely electric vehicle in their line-up. It's amazing how much progress electric propulsion has made over 30 years. One of the cars that sum up how far we've come is the Mercedes-Benz 190E Elektro-Antrieb.
Now, the electric 190E wasn't Mercedes-Benz's first electric passenger car prototype. They may have accidentally made the very first plug-in hybrid vehicle. In 1982 they made the first Elektro-Antrieb test vehicle based on the S123 wagon, but that's a story for another day.
The 190 E Elektro was presented to the public in May of 1990 at the Hannover Fair, and it presented some concepts you see in modern EVs. For starters, it had a direct-drive system that eliminated the need for automatic or manual transmission. Before the 190E Elektro came out, most EV prototypes needed a transmission to drive, which further added to powertrain losses. With a direct drive system, power from the electric motors could be sent directly to the wheels.
Another piece of technology in the 190E Elektro was regenerative braking. Modern EVs and even hybrids have this system that allows the batteries to be recharged under deceleration or braking. That allows the system to extend its range that little bit more and Mercedes-Benz's prototype had it 30 years ago.
Of course, there were no lithium-ion batteries or powerful electric motors during that time. The car had two 16 kW electric motors, meaning it only made 32 kW or about 44 PS. For energy, it used sodium-nickel-chloride battery packs, which made it even heavier than the 190D, the diesel-powered version of the 190E. With the limitations of technology at the time, the range was limited to just 110 kilometers.
Still, that didn't stop the automaker from putting theory into practice. Mercedes-Benz made 7 working prototypes and selected residents of Rügen, an island in Germany, to try it out for themselves. Each car was used daily and one of them even racked up 100,000 kilometers in one year. The automaker had proven the viability and reliability of electric vehicles in the real world, but why didn't it go into mass production?
Aside from the technological limits at the time, Mercedes-Benz said battery service life, range, recycling, charging infrastructure, and vehicle price were just some of the reasons why it didn't push through. Despite that, they gave it another shot when they made yet another Elektro prototype with the first-generation C-Class in 1995.
But everything that hindered the 190E Elektro before has mostly been overcome now. There are Li-Ion batteries that can hold charges longer, electric motors that are now more powerful, and the infrastructure to support EVs has expanded over the decades. These days, Mercedes-Benz has a range of plug-in hybrids and, soon, a full line-up of full-electric vehicles under the EQC name.
But all that wouldn't have been possible without the lessons learned from the 190E Elektro.