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Mercedes-Benz expects internal-combustion engines to stick around for many decades to come, despite a heavy push into both full-electric and fuel-cell vehicles.

Speaking to CarAdvice at the Mercedes-Benz Technology day in Stuttgart last week, Bernhard Heil, the head of Powertrains at Daimler (Mercedes-Benz parent company) said there is still a lot of potential to improve the internal combustion engines (ICE).

“We will never end up in a situation where we do not have ideas anymore to improve the efficiency or NVH behaviour or comfort or whatever [of the ICE].” Heil said.

Speaking of the just unveiled OM654 diesel engine set to launch in the all-new E-Class, Heil admitted improvements are still very much possible.

“So even having this brand new engine developed, there are tons of new ideas in the engineering department on how to improve that in the next revised design, not saying that the principles installed in that engine we would like to redesign but with everyday of experience you can find some things that you can do better.”

According to Heil it still makes business sense to continue to invest in ICE technology, even though the potential for EV and plug-in systems appears to have significantly more future return potential.

“We are faced with the situation that all those CO2 technologies that we need to install in the future to comply with the regulation with those fleet average values, they will all be quite expensive. [but] you are well aware what the cost of 100% EVs are today and plug-in costs as of today, so whenever we do find conventional measures on traditional engines they are comparably effective compared to today’s cost of plug-ins and EVs.

“If you have a ratio, which means euro per-gram CO2, it’s still very attractive to invest in traditional engines.”

Mercedes-Benz C 450 AMG 4MATIC, (BR 205), 2015

As for when the combustion engine will be sent to the history books, Heil believes that is still very far in the future.

“I personally believe that, it’s not foreseeable that we will not see ICE anymore – it is very much dependent on the use case. It might be that in mega cities or inner cities, the percentage of electrified vehicles is increasing. On the other hand, maybe in those rural areas or in countries that are not that far developed, and there are quite a lot of those countries, we will definitely see the combustion engine [continue] and the combustion engine itself from a global CO2 perspective is not the worst.”

With Daimler set to soon start fitting particulate filters to petrol vehicles, the difference between petrol and diesel efficiency and CO2 emissions would begin to close down further, however Heil believes the diesel engine will remain the more efficient choice.

“Right now we achieve a lot of progress on the petrol engine, no doubt about that, but nevertheless the diesel people are not sleeping – they are also achieving a lot of progress,” Heil said.

“If you have in mind that this engine in an E-Class has a CO2 value of 102g/km, you will have a hard time to find a gasoline engine with a similar value. Then you need to invest in a gasoline engine a lot of technology, which makes the engine not cheap.”

Mercedes-Benz is investing 14.5 billion euros (22b) into research and development over the coming years, with more than half of that set to flow into green technologies – although the company admits that the return on investment into green technologies will depend on the consumer demand more than anything else.

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