Under the skin, the F015's driveline was based on that of the 2011 F125 research vehicle. The 120Kw fuel cell and 29kWh lithium-ion battery was fuelled with 5.4kg of gaseous hydrogen stored in carbon-fibre tanks providing a range of up 621 miles. Twin 131bhp electric motors powered the rear wheels, providing a top speed of 124mph and 0-62mph acceleration in 6.7 seconds. Most of this technology, however, was never actually fitted, nor any self-driving technology, so on a short passenger ride round Mercedes-Benz World at Brooklands in Surrey, the electric motor whines and this remarkable concept trundles along feeling more related to a milk float than an S-class. In fact, Mercedes-Benz current E-class is a more advanced self-driver than the F015, but it doesn't matter.
For like most research projects, F015's technology was speculative and the public doesn't appear to have cared one jot. Thomas Jäger, electro-technical engineer, who's accompanied the car on some of its farther-flung journeys, says that families have flocked to see the car, intrigued by the technology and the questions it raises. It's been seen by over 300,000 people in its 36-month odyssey, which seems extraordinary, indeed shortly after our passenger ride, it was crated up and flown to Sydney in Australia.
"We didn't want people's lives to stop when they stepped into the car," says Jäger. "The F015 meant: space, freedom; and privacy and the public have totally understood that."
The commodification of the automobile implicit with electric drivetrains and autonomous driving poses a huge threat to luxury car makers. A future of scuttling, pod-like driverless taxis, puts at risk much of the luxurious contract of speed, power, freedom and swank implicit when you buy a premium automobile. What F015 did was posit a potentially highly desirable Mercedes-Benz, which could drive itself in the most environmental fashion, but when the occasion arose, could also be driven manually. Perhaps that's one reason for its popularity, however good your car is at negotiating clutch-pumping jams on its own, on the right road and at the right time, people still want to get behind the wheel.
Engine: Hydrogen fuel cell with lithium-ion battery and twin electric motors
Transmission: single speed step down gear, rear-wheel drive
Bhp/lb ft: 120kW fuel cell, 29kW battery 131bhp electric motors
Top speed: 124mph
Range: 621 miles
Price as tested: unstated, see text