BMW exclusive: Clearest indication yet of BMW’s vision for hydrogen drivetrains

BMW exclusive: Clearest indication yet of BMW’s vision for hydrogen drivetrains

Trademark blue patterning on the bonnet, blue finishes to the radiator grill, and styled blue plates where exhaust pipes would once have been – design modifications that clearly denote a vehicle is part of the BMW i model. From the end of 2022, these features will be available as part of a small fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles and BMW has outlined its vision for hydrogen drivetrains in an exclusive interview with H2 View.

From the end of 2022, these features will be available as part of a small fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles from the German premium car manufacturer.

BMW revealed its BMW i Hydrogen NEXT car prior to the IAA Cars 2019 show in Frankfurt (Frankfurt Motor Show) and then promptly presented the model at the event the following day. Based on the BMW X5, a rear-wheel drive luxury SUV, the i Hydrogen NEXT is an indication of how hydrogen technology can be integrated into existing vehicle models and, perhaps crucially, of BMW’s intent where hydrogen mobility is concerned.

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©H2 View / BMW

“We know that what concerns the next generation most at the moment is climate change, and that obviously concerns us at the BMW Group too,” says Dr. Jürgen Guldner, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Programme Director at BMW, in an exclusive interview with H2 View. “We’ve said it many times and I will say it again here, we’re committed to the Paris Agreement very strongly and therefore, we’re working hard to contribute to that effort.”

Until now, that has largely meant an investment in battery-electric vehicles, something that BMW has taken a definite lead in. “For example here in Germany we are the top seller of electrified cars this year, and also in Norway three out of four of our vehicles sold are already electric vehicles,” Dr. Guldner explains.

“We think that in two years we will have sold over one million electrified vehicles, so that is a strong commitment from our side. We also said very clearly at the Frankfurt Motor Show that we do believe in the power of choice – what we mean by that is we want to offer to each of our customers the vehicle and powertrain that suits their individual needs best.”

This is where H2 View readers will perhaps be most interested, because that vehicle offering also includes hydrogen fuel cell technology and healthy co-existence between battery electric and fuel cell hydrogen electric depending on the requirement or class of vehicle. Dr. Guldner notes that BMW is establishing electric versions of all its various vehicle models and by 2023, will have as many as 25 electrified models available; this will comprise of a mix of full electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, both of which are very effective at reducing emissions.

The hydrogen fuel cells side ‘will be a little bit later’ but only because BMW does not yet see the full market demand for these vehicles, and aims to offer premium quality as standard once that demand does exist.

“We will clearly be ready to offer something to our customers once they start requesting it,” he says. “Right now, we don’t necessarily see a large-scale market yet, but we see that the market is developing and the public interest is increasing.”

“Battery technology is ready now, it’s available now and it probably has around 10 years advantage over fuel cells in terms of maturity and also the cost aspect. Right now, everyone in the industry knows that fuel cell cars are not in any way or shape yet near a break-even or profitable range. But also the infrastructure is not there yet in a way that a lot of people could use it.”

“These two factors are very different with batteries. With battery vehicles you need some infrastructure, but the basic infrastructure is essentially there, at home or at work. For a lot of use cases, people don’t need external charging and if they do, external charging facilities are being built up, very rapidly. So the battery technology is there, and we are providing these cars to our customers every day.”

But to think there has been any kind of hiatus on hydrogen would be a mistake.

“We have been working on hydrogen continuously through all these years, in different projects and each of those projects built upon each other,” Dr. Guldner reaffirms. “We simply had a varying amount of external noise that we made about each of them.”

“Maybe to the outside it looked like we have been a bit up and down with hydrogen, but internally it has been very steady and deliberate in terms of how the projects have logically built upon each other.”

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©H2 View / BMW

More than a decade ago, BMW was known to be engaged in a high-profile technology partnership with The Linde Group, whereby the two companies were collaborating in cryogenic technology and the latter provided the kind of expertise and infrastructure that was so fundamental to BMW’s interests in hydrogen mobility.

It was perhaps with the wane of this collaboration and the attention it attracted that one could be forgiven for thinking BMW had stepped back from hydrogen cars, but this was certainly not the case. Dr. Guldner pragmatically explains that BMW still cooperates with suppliers of fuelling stations, but now that there is a strong 700 bar hydrogen standard at the fuelling station, “we don’t necessarily need a technology cooperation to develop something.”

“We’ve now abandoned that path of cryogenic technology for passenger vehicles and are focusing on the 700 bar path like everyone else, which means that we can rely on the infrastructure that’s already there,” he adds, itself a sign of the progress that’s been made in hydrogen powertrain and fuelling technologies over the last 10 years.

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©H2 View / BMW

Hydrogen vehicle programme

For BMW, progress has also been made in drive systems and fuel cell technology since its partnership with Toyota began.

Described as a ‘strong development partner’ in our interview, BMW has been working with Toyota since 2013 and since the summer of 2015, the BMW Group’s research wing has been testing a small fleet of protype BMW 5 Series GT hydrogen fuel cell vehicles powered by a jointly developed drive system with a Toyota fuel cell stack. The companies went on to jointly develop fuel cell technology.

Now, as we move towards 2020, BMW has given the clearest indication yet that it is ready to get behind hydrogen fuel cell technology as a potential additional zero-emission drivetrain, and will be positioned to meet the market demand when it does arise.

“We showed at the Frankfurt Motor Show what our vision is: we think that fuel cell technology can be a good solution for long distance travel and also for bigger cars,” Dr. Guldner enthuses.

“We announced that by the end of 2022 we will launch a very small fleet of these vehicles based on the BMW X5. In the second half of the next decade we will look to have a mass production vehicle ready, always with the caveat that the market is developing as predicted right now. Once the market opportunity is there, we will be ready to provide the vehicles for the market.”

For BMW, the focus is on everything that the brand is known for today – premium quality, premium performance, and absolute safety as standard. This is a constant point of reference or ideology that BMW adheres to in its hydrogen vehicle programme, H2 View understands, a mantra that it believes is fundamental to the long-term success of the project.

“As with all our other products, we want to deliver best-in-class performance and top quality. That’s what we do, that’s why we have premium vehicles, and why we have customers who expect premium quality and performance from us,” Dr. Guldner says.

“We have to get all of that into the technology for fuel cell cars as well, in addition to getting the cost down to an acceptable level such that it makes sense to offer something to the customer. That is what we can influence internally, that’s our contribution to this. We do that because we know it is the only way to be sustainable in the long-term; we would not pursue a technology where we know from the beginning that it will not work long-term.”

“But in order for it all to come together, for hydrogen at least, there needs to be a few other things achieved that are not directly in our control. Obviously, the number of fuelling stations out there is one of them. It is the main advantage of a fuel cell car over a battery car that you can refuel very fast and you don’t need to have charging infrastructure, but you do need to have refuelling stations that offer hydrogen and only in some countries there is infrastructure that’s being built up.”

Challenges…

This is why BMW believes it will not be until 2025 at the earliest that we see mass production and adoption of such vehicles, certainly from BMW at least.

There are several obstacles to be overcome first, the company says, not least the fuelling infrastructure build-out, the cost parity with battery-electric technologies and, in an ideal world, the need for ‘green’ hydrogen supply to that infrastructure.

Dr. Guldner says, “A small fleet of vehicles will be ready by the end of 2022, but mass production would be by 2025 at the earliest. It hasn’t been decided yet, we have been clear about that, but we are getting ready for it when the market is there. The market will come from a combination of competitive price and sufficient network or infrastructure.”

“We’ve been working continuously on hydrogen over the last few years and we expect that hydrogen technology will become cost-competitive around the second half of the next decade (2025). That belief is in line with all of the other predictions that are out there, whether it is from the METI ministry in Japan, the respective ministry in Korea, the DOE in the US, or Hydrogen Europe – everyone is predicting that if we do get the required scale-up, it will be in the second half of the next decade that it will be cost-competitive.”

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©H2 View / BMW

Dr. Guldner cites Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia as examples of countries or regions where the hydrogen fuelling network is rapidly growing, while also pointing to the UK, Japan and Korea as being ‘very strong’ and emphasising the considerable progress being made in the State of California in the US. “China is starting right now,” he adds, “they have announced plans but they are already starting to build up the fuelling stations.”

“In several countries now there is a coordinated effort to build up the infrastructure.”

“And if that spreads through Europe, maybe to other Asian countries as well, and other parts of the US beyond California, then there could be a [hydrogen] gas station network available too to fulfil the needs of our premium customers.”

“Obviously if all of that is to have a positive impact on climate change, then that hydrogen at these fuelling stations should come from renewable energies and that is also very important. We do appreciate the ongoing projects that are out there right now to produce and distribute ‘green hydrogen ‘ at a competitive price. Because if you go to buy hydrogen at a gas station, then the price should at least be competitive with the kind of prices for gas or petrol that you expect to pay at the moment [for conventional cars].”

Paving the way

As previously described, BMW believes future mobility will be driven by what powertrain best suits the individual requirements – it is clear that certain vehicle types like heavy-duty trucks and long-distance buses are ‘much better off’ with a fuel cell than a battery.

By contrast, private passenger vehicles for city driving, for example, may be better suited to battery electric vehicle models.

But BMW also believes that these aforementioned trucks and the commercial transport sector as a whole could pave the way for major breakthroughs in hydrogen mobility in the years ahead, a view widely shared by many others in the business and high-profile companies like Nikola.

“We do appreciate the developments that are now happening in the commercial vehicle sector, because that will give a boost to fuel cell technologies overall and when we look at the business cases, the commercial sector will have given a first go at the technology on a much bigger scale,” says Dr. Guldner. “We do very much appreciate that, and also because as a company we do want to use commercial vehicles that are emission-free, for our own logistics for example. So we have a dual interest here.”

“We do think that commercial vehicles will pave the way – they will help with installing refuelling networks, plus they will help to generate the industry behind these refuelling stations and the distribution of green hydrogen to those stations.”

“Just recently for example there was a call to action by ACEA, Hydrogen Europe and IRU to build a network for hydrogen stations, and we very much support that effort,” he adds.

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©H2 View / BMW

BMW also believes the Hydrogen Council, of which it is a steering member, is already more than a force for good in realising hydrogen’s potential, with Dr Guldner describing how “it’s hard to think of what the hydrogen world would like without it, now.”

“So far it’s been very positive from our perspective because it brings together so many different players from across industry, and those players need to come together to make hydrogen really a viable player in the climate change efforts,” he says. “Just bringing all of those companies together is, I think, pretty unprecedented and the Council has been able to raise the awareness of hydrogen technology to politicians, other business and also to the general public. That is really outstanding, and we really value what is happening there.”

It gave the industry a perspective and helps all of us to realise what the potential is with hydrogen and that this is not just a solution for single industries, but it will play an important role in climate change efforts and the energy sector simply because it’s a form of energy that is transportable and durable and these two factors will be a big part of the transfer to clean energies.”

“It’s not just the transport, people are beginning to realise that it’s about much more than that – it’s the whole industry and players like the steel industry are coming into play too. If we want to have a green steel plant, then we need hydrogen to power that, for example.”

BMW has not yet decided whether its initial small fleet of hydrogen vehicles will be available just in Germany or beyond, H2 View understands, but it is clear that the company is watching developments across the globe closely and has a commitment to the roll-out of premium quality and performance fuel cell vehicles within the next decade. The fact that such a household name and major manufacturer is so pragmatically passionate about hydrogen energy can only be a good thing, and a promising sign of what’s to come.


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