Yes, it looks like some bastard love child between a Toyota FJ Cruiser and a Warthog from Halo. And yes, it’s just a concept vehicle, and a concept cop car at that. But the Mercedes-Benz Ener-G-Force excites the imagination for a few reasons. First, a couple years back Mercedes put out a concept version of its AMG SLS Coupe — an all-electric version, with motors at every wheel rather than under the hood. Three short years later, spring 2013, the SLS AMG Coupé Electric Drive will be in production and on sale.
The AMG is the most powerful in the brand’s history, good for 737 foot-pounds of torque, and will sprint to 60 miles an hour in 3.9 seconds. Oh, and it will cost $530,000 at today’s exchange rates. But the stratospheric price isn’t the point — what’s important is the technology that lies beneath and what it suggests about vehicles of the future, like a concept cop car that could, reimagined, be a phenomenal utility truck.
Not “Motor,” Motors
There’s no engine under the hood of the SLS: Each wheel gets its own motor, each motor driving each wheel individually. The advantage on pavement is the ability to overdrive the outermost wheels in a corner, tightening the turning radius (passenger cars tend to “understeer,” meaning they push wide of the intended apex). You can use stability and traction control to do the same thing, but that’s like using a hammer where a pair of tweezers are more precise. Also: using power rather than brakes to do this job makes the vehicle faster.
Off-road, individual wheel motors could also be a bold step forward. Presently stability and traction control are used to brake wheels that slip during off-roading, and in some 4WD systems power is also cut. But imagine how, with a motor at each wheel, you could very precisely apply just the right amount of power to each wheel according to the amount of grip available. It’s a much tighter feedback loop, and you’re never braking a wheel because you’re not waiting for slip, you’re only driving the wheel according to the immediate grip available. Oh, and electric motors get nearly instant peak torque, which makes them pretty much an off-road driver’s dream, where horsepower is largely pointless but strong low-end torque is mandatory.
Last point: If you’re running electric you don’t need to worry about drowning an engine during fording. If the thing isn’t floating and it’s built to prevent water from getting into the cabin, you’ll go anywhere.
The SLS has a state-of-the-art, 60 kWh, liquid-cooled lithium-ion high-voltage battery good for a range of 155 miles, which isn’t quite enough for off-road jaunts. Preferably you’d be looking at at least 250 miles, and that could just be possible (or better) if the Ener-G-Force (or something this size) were built, because you’d have room for a larger battery. Also don’t forget that Mercedes is already ahead of the curve with this range and that these numbers keep going up. They’re looking at 2025 for the Ener-G, but even regardless of the time frame, battery life and shorter charging times are growing increasingly feasible. Currently, a quick-charging station at home can refuel the SLS in about three hours, which will most certainly get faster.
Pull-Out Tool Drawer
Okay, some of the other stuff is pure concept-car goofiness. A 360-degree camera that reads terrain and adjusts the suspension accordingly? Not happening. Even the smaller window dimensions would make spotting off-road obstacles a pain in the neck. The designers say that because this vehicle was designed for the Los Angeles Design Challenge 2012, whose theme this year is the Highway Patrol Vehicle of 2025, that lower glass-to-metal ratio would protect the fuzz from bad guys. Whatever.
But 20-inch rims give the Ener-G-Force ridiculous ground clearance. And Mercedes ditches the traditional spare tire location on the rear hatch and replaces it with a tool drawer that can be accessed from the back of the vehicle without having to open the hatch. Segregating grimy tools from the civilized interior of the vehicle has always made sense, and the concept is already proven with the Ram Box on some Ram trucks and with an in-bed storage bay on Honda’s Ridgeline.
It’s way too soon to tell if Mercedes is serious about moving this direction, but we hope somebody does. We’ll still need off-road vehicles in the future, and electric power has a lot of advantages over internal combustion.
And unlike the Teslas of the world, Mercedes is a volume brand. They don’t sell many AMGs, but they sell a ton of C-Classes. So if they can prove technology works at the $500,000 end, eventually it will get to the masses.