BMW News

It was obvious during BMW’s Innovation Days 2015 earlier this month that it is still in love with hydrogen as an automotive propulsion source. For years, the company has tested and produced hydrogen powered cars—most famously the Hydrogen 7 Series from about ten years ago. Those cars used hydrogen as fuel for the car’s internal combustion engine. Problems then, as now, included on-board hydrogen storage and consumer-level hydrogen supply and refueling. You may recall that for its fleet of Hydrogen 7s, BMW  developed robotic hydrogen refueling stations that eliminated the need for humans to be involved in putting hydrogen into the car.

Now, as a result of a partnership with Toyota, BMW is testing new hydrogen-powered cars, but this time, the hydrogen is used in a fuel cell to produce the electricity that will power eDrive BMWs.

At Innovation Days 2015, BMW rolled out its 5 Series Gran Tourismo demonstrator that is starting testing on public roads this month. The car’s electric motor cranks out 245 horsepower and is a variant of BMW eDrive technology already used in BMW I cars and BMW plug-in hybrids.

Hydrogen in the 5 Series GT test car is stored in a low-temperature liquid state in a tank located in the tunnel between the front and rear axles.

Don’t look for a hydrogen drive BMW anytime soon, however. BMW says it will be well into the next decade before a consumer model is ready.  Matthias Klietz, head of powertrain research, told reporters that BMW plans “a technically mature, customer-ready vehicle some time after 2020,” and that “By around 2025 to 2030, we expect fuel cell cars to have an established presence, but there are challenges that remain, like building the refueling infrastructure.”

The hydrogen fuel cell project is a joint venture between BMW and Toyota. Fuel cells, which have provided electrical power to spacecraft for more about 50 years, produce electricity when oxygen and hydrogen react with each other. The main benefit is a longer range for electric cars as compared to battery-only propulsion, and the only byproduct of the fuel cell process is water vapor.

There is still no practical refueling infrastructure to speak of, and hydrogen production can be expensive.

BMW is working with other carmakers, governments, and utilities to speed up the creation of a refueling network, according to Axel Ruecker, a member of BMW’s hydrogen development team. In Japan, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda are funding development of a hydrogen-fueling network in that country.

The fuel-cell-powered 5 Series Gran Turismo shown at BMW’s Innovation Days 2015 has a reported range of 310 miles. That beats the smaller, lighter BMW i3’s battery-only range of about 80 miles. While the i3 takes hours to recharge its batteries, the fuel-cell 5 Series GT can have it’s hydrogen tank refilled in five minutes.

The i3’s batteries take at least five hours to recharge, compared with five minutes to fill the prototype’s hydrogen tank.

“Technically, we’re ready to put fuel-cell cars on the road, but so far it remains too expensive,” Ruecker said. “Making fuel-cell technology a reality is a task not just for carmakers, but for the whole of society.”

BMW and Toyota have been working together on fuel-cell technology since 2013 and BMW is a little late to the fuel-cell party. Daimler began development of fuel cells in 1994 and produced a fuel-cell-powered B Class compact in 2009. As of last December Toyota started selling a fuel-cell car—the Mirai.

BMW—like most carmakers and especially European ones—have emission and fleet fuel use requirements mandated by the European Union and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells seem like the holy grail now, but whether fuel-cell cars can translate into sustainable sales or a satisfied customer base that is used to high-performance cars remains to be seen.—Scott Blazey

[Photos courtesy of BMW AG.]