This sleek i8-based prototype housed a three-meter hydrogen tank and aimed at performance from a fuel-cell, rather than range.
After a journey of more than 25 years, German premium automaker BMW is finally, belatedly, entering the hydrogen fuel-cell production race.
BMW confirmed last week that it will put a toe-in-the-water hydrogen-powered X5 onto the market in the “early ‘20s” before a full series production fuel-cell goes on sale in 2025.
“In the early ‘20s there will be a small series of X5 hydrogen cars and by 2025 there will be a mass producible hydrogen car available, with Toyota,” BMW’s director of development Klaus Frölich said last week.
Yet in 2015, the same BMW, during a test of a prototype hydrogen fuel-cell at its Miramas facility in France told journalists that 2019 would be the release date for its first teaser cars, so it seems to have been pushed back by at least two years since then.
“There will be nothing whatsoever from the Toyota and BMW partnership in production next year or 2017,” BMW’s then vice-president of drivetrain research, Matthias Klietz admitted in 2015.
“2019 is probably the best bet for that, and that’s the normal development cycle.
“But it will be somewhere between 2020 and 2025 from the hydrogen fuel-cell development.”
Toyota, he admitted, had a technological lead in fuel-cell stacks, but BMW was more advanced in tank technology.
The other shock admission was his 2015 estimate that a production 2025 fuel-cell car would be twice the cost of a BEV to produce in 2025.
Seen by some as a long-term solution to zero-emission mobility that will outlive battery-electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells have been worked on at BMW since the mid-1990s
The Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL emits just 0.34 kg of CO2 per 100km. And is already in production.
But arch-rival Mercedes-Benz is already in the European market with its GLC Fuel Cell and Toyota, Honda and Hyundai have production fuel-cell cars (and even Audi had A7 h-tron fuel-cell cars for journalists to drive at the Los Angeles auto show two years ago).
Even the Volkswagen Group’s low-volume luxury brand Bentley is 10 days away from launching its EXP 100 GT Concept, which is rumored to have a hydrogen fuel-cell hybrid powertrain.
It’s hard to overcome the perception that BMW is lagging behind.
Or is it?
BMW’s director of development, Klaus Frölich, admitted last week that profitable fuel cell EVs were a long way off.
BMW has been working with hydrogen for more than 25 years and even dabbled with the idea of burning liquefied hydrogen it directly inside internal combustion powerplants, which would have saved it a whole bunch of retooling headaches.
In more recent times, the “i5” nameplate it registered three years ago was widely speculated to be a production mid-sized BEV, but sources insisted it was always supposed to be a hydrogen fuel-cell car.
“The i3 and i8 were solitary cars with solitary concepts – its first battery pack was only 22kWh,” Frölich responded.
“It (BEV) was a very specific concept and now it’s becoming mainstream.
“BMW i will always make special cars. The pure i cars were one-offs, now and i4 is in the structure, but the pinnacle cars have to tell a story.
“The tricky thing with i is that it’s for “innovative” and BEV isn’t that anymore.”
The company joined a technical tie-up with hydrogen leader Toyota nearly half a decade ago and it’s close to paying off.
“They (Toyota) make the standard performance stack and we make the high-performance stack,” Frölich said.
The teaser/tester series of X5s will be very expensive, low-volume models and there’s no word yet whether they will be leased or retailed or what countries they would be delivered to.
Cost, complexity and packaging are the biggest hurdles for fuel-cell makers.
BMW insists it could put a fuel-cell car into production today, but has held it back for cost reasons – even though it has developed four generations of fuel-cell cars as research projects.
“It doesn’t make sense to scale the fuel cell (X5) when the stack is 80,000 euros,” Frölich said.
“It makes sense to scale when it’s 10,000 euros.”
Hydrogen fuel cells combine oxygen coming into the car with onboard hydrogen to generate electricity, leaving nothing but heat and water vapor. Effectively, they are an electric car with the hydrogen fuel cell behaving like an active battery.
For the uninitiated, a push on the accelerator pedal tells the fuel-cell stack to force hydrogen from the tank onto an anode plate, where each hydrogen atom is broken into protons and electrons.
The protons migrate through polymer cell membranes to reach the positively charged cathode at the other end. There they react with oxygen (fan forced from the atmosphere into the stack), creating water vapor. The separated electrons, meanwhile, supply the car’s electricity.
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Image Credit: BMW Communications, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz/Daimler Communications