Mercedes has just announced that it will sell a fully electric version of its Sprinter van in the US from 2023. Could this be the basis for the zero-emission #vanlife build of your dreams?
To understand the electric sprinter, you must first understand the role that such vans play in other parts of the world. For example, visit Europe and instead of seeing one pickup after another clogging traffic, see Mercedes Sprinters and Ford Transits. Vans like these are universal commercial vehicles that perform every imaginable task, from delivering mail to transporting craftsmen between construction sites.
In densely populated Europe, travel distances are often very short and fuel is heavily taxed. So often it makes sense for independent contractors and operators of large vehicle fleets to pay a premium for electric vehicles, even for those with very short ranges. Mercedes is currently selling an electric Sprinter in Europe, but it is equipped with a small battery with 55 kilowatt hours (kWh) and has a range of only about 90 miles. Batteries for electric vehicles currently cost around $ 200 per kWh, so only the battery is $ 11,000 for the price of that vehicle. Run the numbers with European fuel prices and vehicle charges, and that electric sprinter could cost a plumber in Paris. But you can understand why Mercedes didn’t import it to the US, where the distances are longer and the fuel is cheap.
What Mercedes is announcing this week is the development of a brand new Sprinter that is designed from the ground up for electric and combustion engines. That said, there will be more space for batteries (up to 120 kWh), and Mercedes says the brand new Sprinter will be imported to the US in both electric and internal combustion engine forms. Sales are scheduled to begin here and in Europe in late 2023.
Vans like the Sprinter are establishing themselves as commercial vehicles on this continent. They offer large amounts of completely closed, weatherproof and theft-proof storage space, low loading heights and low operating costs. Since the 120 kWh battery should be suitable for a range of up to 224 miles between charges, the electric version should be able to serve delivery drivers and contractors here, especially in cities. If tax incentives can usefully offset the likely $ 24,000 premium the battery will carry, this could be the right tool for some commercial users.
Here at Outside we tend to think of vans, not because of their commercial use, but because of their ability to serve as platforms for mobile living. You can carry people, dogs, and sports equipment outdoors and, with the right modifications, even turn them into apartments on wheels. Further modifications could allow them to drive off-road. The current Sprinter is the definitive #vanlife vehicle. Will the new electric model finally give van enthusiasts the opportunity to be emission-free? The answer is more nuanced than it seems.
The first challenge for an electric sprinter is the price. The current combustion model starts at around $ 35,000. If you want a really big Sprinter or one with all-wheel drive, that price goes up closer to $ 75,000. People often spend so much adding off-road capabilities and making the interior comfortable living space. There is no way around sprinters turning into very expensive vehicles very quickly. Buying an electric version with this 120 kWh battery pack will likely add $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 to all of that.
The second challenge will come from all of the off-road talk. In these renderings of the future Sprinter, Mercedes shows a front-mounted electric motor that drives the rear wheels, with the battery located amidships between the frame rails. This is an ideal layout for hauling heavy loads in a commercial setting, but the two-wheel drive cannot provide the traction required to handle challenging off-road conditions. And adding four-wheel drive isn’t as easy on an electric vehicle as it is on one powered by dead dinosaur juice. Both current and future electric vehicles, which can drive all four wheels, use at least one motor on each axle and often one motor per wheel. It is currently not clear whether such a control is provided on this platform. An additional motor or several motors increase both the already high price and the energy consumption drastically.
Range will also be an issue: 224 miles is barely enough to really escape most cities. In states like California, which already have rugged charging systems along popular travel routes, in a rural town you might be able to quickly quick charge before heading into the mountains to camp. However, this figure is likely not an accurate representation of the electric sprinter’s performance in real-world conditions. Both the fuel consumption and the range of electric vehicles are calculated using a standard test method. While this procedure gives you an idea of how a vehicle will behave in normal use, paved roads often do not take into account factors that are typical of our vehicles’ outdoor use. Things like carrying a lot of weight (building a van adds a lot), climbing steep inclines, and operating in extreme temperatures require enormous amounts of energy. Together, these things could cut the range of the electric sprinter by more than half. Even if you can find a charging station in the last town before your adventure really begins, you have an effective travel radius of 90 km so you can get there and back. Bake in a margin of error and you’re not taking this thing very far off the net at all.
Couldn’t you fill up those batteries with solar panels on the roof of the van? I installed two 100 watt solar panels on the roof of my Ford Ranger that charge the small battery that powers my fridge / freezer and on-board lighting. These panels would take 600 hours in direct sunlight to fully charge a 120 kWh battery. A van could fit in a third or maybe even a fourth panel, but adding those in still doesn’t get you under two months of charging time (assuming five hours of direct sunlight per day).
So if you really want to drive a zero-emission Sprinter on your next camping trip, you need to make sure your destination is less than 90 km from a charging station and along a route that doesn’t involve extreme deviations – challenges on the road – and for it you have to spend a lot of money. Also, you won’t be able to take this trip until early 2024. I hate to bring bad news, but it will be a few more years before #vanlife can really go green.
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Main photo: Mercedes-Benz