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BMW pushes ahead with hydrogen, despite challenges

Hy 5: BMW rolled out the hydrogen fuel-cell-powered 5 Series GT back in 2015, and the company is continuing to develop the technology.

Hydrogen fuel-cell tech still part of BMW’s future plans, but obstacles remain

14 Jun 2017

BMW will continue to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technology, despite the various barriers that are preventing a wider roll-out to consumers, according to the company’s ‘i’ division boss.

The German car-maker revealed its vision of a future fuel cell-powered car in 2015, which was a 5 Series GT powered by the technology, but had earlier revealed its intentions with the 7 Series-based Hydrogen 7 back in 2005.

Earlier this year, BMW CEO Harald Krueger re-confirmed the company’s commitment to the tech by producing a low-volume hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car by about 2021, with wider availability from 2025. This follows the agreement BMW signed with Japanese giant Toyota back in early 2013 to develop fuel-cell technology.

Speaking with Australian journalists at the media launch of the 530e plug-in hybrid last week, BMW i head of product management Alexander Kotouc said the company was still developing fuel-cell tech and highlighted the challenges in rolling it out.

“If I am talking the electric drive future, it includes fuel-cell and hydrogen,” he said in Sydney last week. “You are aware we are still having a cooperation with Toyota. We are of course using economies of scale to research on this really promising technology together.

“What is the drawback of this technology at the moment? It is the charging network. We know what is really harming the bigger spread of electro-mobility, it is not having enough charging stations. If you now think about how many hydrogen fuel stations there are in Australia, there probably isn’t any. Then you would have another very promising technology but without offering something like infrastructure, I don’t think it is a good idea to go really deeply at the current time.

“It is always like the egg and chicken thing. We currently don’t see that anybody is investing in something like a hydrogen network. Actually, from a technology point of view, we had the Active Hydrogen 7, so we have a car that could drive, and from a tech point of view, we could offer you a car with hydrogen, it is not that hard. But if there is no network where consumers can charge the cars, there is no point doing it.”

Mr Kotouc said there was room for BMW to develop more traditional battery-powered electric vehicles as well as hydrogen fuel-cell cars, but highlighted the environmental issues related to producing hydrogen.

“With hydrogen, there are two problems. First you don’t have a network. Second, if you want to produce hydrogen, it takes so much energy to produce it, if you take the overall CO2 balance of hydrogen, it is a clean technology to burn in a car, but the CO2 level is so bad to produce the hydrogen it doesn’t make sense.

“The only clean hydrogen actually could be produced with completely solar power. Which says if you take something like … well Australia could be a potential supplier, or Africa, lots of sun... the only sustainable way to use hydrogen is to really use solar power. So far nobody is doing that. It is a clean technology that can’t be clean at the moment.” When asked by GoAuto why BMW is still pouring resources into developing hydrogen fuel-cell technology given the massive obstacles, Mr Kotouc said it was important to continue to explore alternative powertrain technologies to find the best option for consumers.

“Well you should never say no to technology if you see value in it. If you were the owner of a gas station and you feel like your business model is going away because combustion engines are, probably not dying in an instant but it is going away. You could say, ‘I will replace my gas station with a charging station’. It is difficult because all of the electric suppliers are quicker.

But if I had a gas station, I would say ‘why don’t I convert it to a hydrogen station in the future?’ So the process is ongoing and that is why we of course still investigate hydrogen, and it is a really beautiful technology.

“I can’t give you a timeframe when it is really ready to (go to) market, because it really all is vulnerable to the infrastructure, but I think there could be a change as well.”

Mr Kotouc suggested that a wider acceptance and roll-out of hydrogen powered cars would likely be “about 15-20 years, the battery will be your best bet for cars”.

In terms of EV battery range, Mr Kotouc said there was little point in pushing for a vehicle with an all-electric driving range of 1000km, as few people would have a need for it on their regular commute.

“What we have found from market research, the psychological threshold where customers don’t have range anxiety anymore. It is about 300km real range. As soon as you have something like 300km real range in your car, people start ticking the box saying they don’t have range anxiety anymore.

“Of course, the battery capacity in the future will always become better, it is the same with computers, you always have the cycles where the capacity just doubles. The same will happen to batteries, probably in a slower kind of way.

The basic question is how much range do you actually want to put in a car.

Because you are always adding weight and adding cost. The question is, do we ever want to offer something like a 1000km battery? I would answer, why should we? “Technically we could, but if we are at a 500km range, this is good for almost all purposes. And it is not about the battery you are having in the car, it is more about the charging technology. Because the quicker we can recharge the battery, the less you actually need battery in the car. From a consumer point of view, I wouldn’t ask a question like, when can I have 1000km battery, but the question is, what can you do about the charging. Because if you imagine you have a 300km battery, but you can charge it in 10 minutes, you don’t need anymore, because you stop for a coffee, go to the toilet, and you have 300km once more recharged. Why should you pay more or want more weight in the car to have a 600km battery, you just don’t need it.” BMW is close to rolling out inductive charging technology, and charging times are reducing with each new EV model released onto the market.

Mr Kotouc said internal BMW research suggested that the average number of kilometres driven in an i3, regardless of the market, is 49km per day.

He also said that BMW was keen to offer consumers various options when it comes to alternative powertrain tech. He said the company would roll-out more models under the the ‘i’ sub-brand, but that something like an all-electric production model, such as a 5 Series was also not far off.

“We are close. I can’t really give you like an exact number for probably competitive reasons, but you can put something like 2020.... on that. It’s coming.”

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