If you ask Thomas Hofmann, project manager for BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell program, what he would like to see in the not too distant future where personal transportation doesn’t involve tailpipe emissions, that’s an option.
Most future cars will be powered by batteries, said Hofmann. But he wants to see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available to those who want them.
“I hope we don’t go mainstream,” Hofmann said in an interview with InsideEVs in Munich last week during a media briefing on BMW’s future powertrain technology. “But we’re talking about a percentage of our electricity portfolio here… the customer has to have the power to choose.”
Even as batteries increasingly look to become the dominant means of vehicle power in the coming decades, and even as BMW itself seems to be finally getting serious about the EV space, the German company remains one of the few automakers still investing in hydrogen power.
Last week BMW announced the Hydrogen iX5, a hydrogen fuel cell powered EV version of its hugely popular midsize SUV. Born at BMW’s massive Spartanburg, South Carolina SUV factory, it was then sent to Germany to be equipped with hydrogen tanks, fuel cells and electric motors.
Having said all that, don’t expect to see the Hydrogen iX5 keep RJ Scaringe up at night contemplating whether or not the next Rivian truck needs room for a hydrogen tank. This new SUV will be released as a “technology demonstrator” in limited markets starting next spring, a sort of R&D project rolling in the hands of selected individuals.
So why does BMW – a powerhouse in luxury car sales, but with a much smaller holding company than rivals such as Audi in the Volkswagen Group or Mercedes-Benz – use its unlimited resources for this source of power?
Hofmann said BMW sees enough gains today with hydrogen fuel cell technology to envision a future in which it’s a component, but perhaps not a key component, of emission-free mobility and the company’s own carbon neutrality goals.
Thomas Hofmann from BMW talks about hydrogen. Photo Credit: Patrick George
He added that the perceived benefits include less feedstock needed for fuel cell production, significantly faster refueling times for drivers who may be frustrated with EV filling times, the ease of transporting hydrogen over long distances through pipelines, and for Europe (and Germany in particular) it is a cheap and renewable source of fuel available for import.
“We believe now the race has begun” for expertise and business by the end of the decade, said Hofmann, describing this process as “survival of the fittest.” And it’s a race that BMW wants to be the market leader if things start to tilt that way.
“Maybe it gives us an option to reach some customers when they need these mobility requirements,” said Hofmann. He adds that if customers have few good EV charging options, or don’t want to deal with potentially long battery charge times, they might say, “Oh, BMW offered me this option.”
However, this plan is not without significant obstacles. On paper, hydrogen fuel cells seem like an easy and almost seamless replacement for fossil fuels. They’re EVs, but with electric motors driven by a process that involves compressing hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe – and refueling it at a gas station like a petrol or diesel car. There’s no charging time, no range anxiety, and the only emissions are water droplets as hydrogen atoms are separated and combined with oxygen.
Plus, BMW has been working on this for a long time. It began researching hydrogen in the late 1970s and has released, albeit in small numbers and in certain markets, hydrogen-powered vehicles here and there since the late 1990s. (Unlike the new Hydrogen iX5, however, those older cars actually run hydrogen fuel inside an internal combustion engine; BMW’s newer fuel cell offerings are electric vehicles.)
A BMW spokesperson declined to provide budget figures on the automaker’s hydrogen fuel cell R&D program, but said it was “a drop in the bucket” when compared to battery EVs.
Despite decades of development, battery EVs have supplanted hydrogen as the most viable power source for a post-petroleum future, and it’s a large part of where automakers, startups and governments invest resources. Hydrogen cars are still expensive to manufacture and rely on a fuel infrastructure that lags far behind EV charging – which in itself is grossly inadequate. And the requirements around transporting compressed hydrogen fuel to a fueling station can result in a higher carbon footprint than a battery EV.
Perhaps more importantly, China, the world’s largest auto market and a regulatory driver that shapes the entire automotive world, is driving the dominance of EV batteries. As is China, so is the rest of the world.
Lots expert now let’s say hydrogen fuel cells will be more suitable for heavy-duty trucks in the long term, possibly replacing diesel fuel for long-distance transport. But BMW says it is only developing fuel cell technology for passenger cars, not large trucks.
Hofmann says the automaker’s goal is to be able to build hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the same line as battery EVs to reduce costs, which is in the spirit of what BMW has done with its modern CLAR platform: vehicles that can be assembled on diesel. , petrol, hybrid or EV powertrain depending on market conditions and customer demand.
“Fuel cells do not require critical raw materials such as cobalt, lithium or nickel, so by investing in this type of drive system we also strengthen the geopolitical resilience of the BMW Group,” Frank Weber, BMW Group board of directors. member in charge of development, said in a press release. “Our BMW iX5 Hydrogen test fleet will allow us to gain new and valuable insights, enabling us to present an exciting product range to customers once the hydrogen economy becomes a widespread reality.”
Say one time did a lot of the heavy lifting in that last sentence. Hydrogen refueling stations for passenger vehicles are still very rare; only 80 are in the United States, according to BMW’s own data, and nearly all of them are in California. Europe and the Middle East together have about 230, while Asia is the current leader – mainly thanks to more than 160 stations in Japan.
That’s why Toyota remains the undisputed leader in hydrogen fuel cell development, to the point where the company received criticism for reportedly lobbying for battery electric vehicles in the US. Honda hasn’t completely given up on this either, recently announcing the hydrogen CR-V for 2024. And South Korea’s Hyundai is also continuing to invest in this direction, selling the Nexo fuel cell crossover in California.
Finally, BMW may no longer have a European monopoly on fuel cell vehicle development. In November, Volkswagen and German company Kraftwerk Group announced the development of a new fuel cell that can provide a range of more than 1,200 miles.
So while it’s hard to imagine in the near future where fuel cells somehow become the dominant means of propelling passenger vehicles, auto companies still see enough potential to hedge their bets a bit, as did BMW.
“Here, we see a good opportunity to not be standing on just one foot when you talk about zero-emission mobility,” said Hofmann.