In the smart department of vehicle development, Jochen Eck is responsible for testing the new smart electric drive models. Together with his team, he puts the emission-free city cars through their paces, exposing them to extreme conditions – from desert heat to the Arctic Circle.
Before smart delivers a new model to an air-conditioned trade fair hall and later to dealers, it puts the vehicle through one of the world’s toughest car bootcamps. At smart and Mercedes-Benz, the person responsible for comprehensive testing of compact vehicles is engineer Jochen Eck. Based at Sindelfingen, he plans test drives under extreme climate conditions – like the freezing cold of Northern Sweden where his team pushes prototypes to their limits on icy tracks and frozen lakes. Or in the Arizona desert where the blistering sun exposes materials to their ultimate stress test. Like all new models, the new smart electric drive range also had to pass this parkour, ensuring they are in perfect shape for urban use – and beyond.
Mr. Eck, smart is the first manufacturer to electrify its entire range. Two smart models – the smart fortwo and smart forfour – are already available as smart electric drive versions, powered by a silent, locally emission-free electric engine. The smart fortwo cabrio electric drive will hit markets in summer. Could you tell us why smart took this innovative step?
Jochen Eck: The idea of extending the smart electric drive concept from the smart fortwo to the smart fortwo cabrio and the four-seater smart forfour seemed like an obvious development. Since the predecessor, a smart fortwo electric drive, sold well, it seemed only logical to extend this to the other models and offer them as electric versions. So, we no longer produce a range of several combustion-engine smart models plus an electric car, but a broad smart product family.
Are customers already expecting this range and variety?
Jochen Eck: Absolutely, and I think they’re entitled to it. One of our customers might want an electric cabrio since he loves driving an open-top car, while another is looking for an electric four-seater because she plans to travel with her family. Offering both of them the same model simply wouldn’t be in the spirit of the times any more.
You’re probably among the people who has covered the most miles in an electric car. How would you describe the electrified driving experience to someone who’s never traveled in an electric vehicle?
Jochen Eck: It’s an incredible amount of fun. The 60 kW electric engine delivers an effortless, yet very powerful sense of acceleration in the city, but also on winding roads or in the mountains. Customer feedback reveals that people also really enjoy driving economically. Not because they pursue a particularly frugal philosophy, but because they have learned to love the smart electric drive and its technology.
Could you give us an example of such a specific electric vehicle feature?
Jochen Eck: Take the so-called recuperation: The electric drive captures the energy generated by braking – which is usually lost as heat – turns it back into power, and then feeds it back into the battery. So, you can actually see the range indicator moving back up and appreciate this brand new joy and satisfaction of driving.
If the new models are so much fun to drive – it almost sounds like you’ve created a sports car?
Jochen Eck: No, of course not. And there are many other important reasons to opt for the smart electric drive beyond its agile handling: With its city traffic-optimized reach of 100 miles, it is very economical and locally emission-free. So, if you charge your car with green energy, or even power from your own solar panels, you are not generating any CO2 emissions at all. To many people, that’s reason enough for choosing a smart electric drive: It saves both money and the environment.
Many drivers have never tried an electric car, but smart has more than a decade’s worth of experience with e-mobility. Where does this expertise shine through the most?
Jochen Eck: smart is one of the few cars based on a platform optimized for both a tank and gasoline engine or an electric drive/battery combination – without any structural changes. So, there’s no need to build a different car from the one our customers already know – a car we are very familiar and comfortable with in terms of technology and construction.
Is this what allowed you to focus so intensely on optimizing e-mobility-specific functions like the car’s charging technology?
Jochen Eck: That’s right. All smart electric drive models come with a new, high-performance on-board charger as standard, which almost halves charging times at wallboxes or public charging stations. That’s a vital step forward in terms of convenience for anyone who doesn’t want to charge their car overnight at their own outlet. Naturally, charging speeds also depend on grid conditions and specific country versions.
Your main job is to review and ensure that the cars work well for the customer. The smart electric drive had to pass the same harsh tests as any other smart or Mercedes-Benz model – even in terrain usually associated with four-wheel drives. What makes these extreme tests necessary?
Jochen Eck: The goal of these tests for so-called complete vehicle clearance is the same for any model: We want to ship a perfect car. So we take the prototypes to Sweden in winter for cold weather testing and to Arizona in summer for heat testing. The actual tests tend to differ, though: I have my own team for the smart electric drive and its specific testing procedures. And since electric cars have different functions and features, we have actually developed our own range of tests over the years. By now, we have gained some excellent expertise from four generations of smart electric drive and other battery-electric Mercedes-Benz vehicles, making the testing and quality assurance of electric vehicles quite routine.
Which functions deserve special attention?
Jochen Eck: Any components affected by temperature. For example, extreme conditions make sounds in the vehicle more noticeable than in Central European climates. When extreme temperatures cause materials to expand or contract, you suddenly hear crackling sounds you wouldn’t notice otherwise. We expose the cars to these unusual conditions to quickly identify any critical aspects. This, for example, prompted us to install a system that not only heats or cools the interior, but also the battery.
Please imagine the following: You have a day off with the smart electric drive of your choice. Where would you go?
Jochen Eck: That’s a tough question! There are so many cities that are a great fit; places we’ve already explored with the smart electric drive: Brooklyn, San Francisco, Berlin – but in the end, I’d have to say Rome: With its narrow streets and bustling traffic, it’s the city with the highest concentration of smart cars – 40 per 1,000 residents. This makes it the smart city. Rome in a smart fortwo cabrio electric drive, the only electric convertible on the market – that’d really be something!