BMW aims to win race to harness power of hydrogen

The German carmaker is making use of Toyota’s technology in its latest i5 model

The BMW i5 seems to be winning the race to put ‘hydrogen’ cars into commercial production

The BMW i5 seems to be winning the race to put ‘hydrogen’ cars into commercial production

 

After pushing electric power in the i3 and hybrid urge in the i8, expect BMW’s next “i” model to be hydrogen-powered.

Germany’s carmakers are locked in a race to beat each other into production with hydrogen fuel cell cars, with BMW’s i5 emerging as the front runner.

Due in limited production in 2017, the third leg of BMW’s eco-focused “i” brand will take advantage of shared Toyota technology to leapfrog Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

However, they won’t be alone, with Honda and Toyota planning to have fuel-cell cars on sale in Europe and the US next year and Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Nissan and Ford all currently developing production fuel-cell cars.

BMW has registered the name “i5” and sources have strongly hinted that it will use an updated version of the Toyota FCV’s fuel cell to turn hydrogen into electric energy.

While a rear-drive successor to the Z4 (sharing the so-called Supra platform) has been touted as the most big bang addition for BMW from its architecture- and powertrain-sharing arrangement with Toyota, sources say the i5 is emerging as the most significant.

It will give the “i” brand a three-legged approach to alternative energy, with the i3 using full electric (or range-extender electric) power and the i8 using a combination of a three-cylinder turbo petrol motor and electric motivation.

BMW is said to be enthusiastic about using Toyota’s technology as a step-up to hydrogen power, especially as it wants to counter Mercedes-Benz’s plans to put a fuel-cell B-Class into production within three years. The more conservative Volkswagen Group is keeping a tight lid on its plans, though a hydrogen-powered A7 is due for the LA Motor Show this week.

But with tighter emissions limits being forced onto car companies and the uncomfortably slow sales of the i3 and Renault’s fleet of electric cars, most car companies are beginning to curb their enthusiasm from pure electric cars.

Range anxiety and charging times remain issues, as does the tiresome chore of plugging in heavy cables at both ends of a daily commute.

Key automotive supplier Robert Bosch insists hydrogen fuel cells, rather than pure electric cars, will be the dominant alternative power source by 2025. The head of Bosch’s automotive division, Wolf-Henning Scheider, told last Friday’s Automobilwoche conference in Berlin that fuel cells were becoming cheaper and more feasible for mass production.

“Fuel cells are not out of the race. They are a viable alternative to other zero-emission vehicle technologies,” he said.

He said that even though fuel-cell cars had up to five times the range of electric cars and could be “recharged” in minutes, development costs and poor economies of scale meant the technology was expensive. He also said fuel-cell cars would always be more expensive, citing a cost ratio of two-to-one compared to electric cars in 2025, but the greater range and lower anxiety could generate demand.

Fuel cells work by combining oxygen coming into the car with on-board hydrogen to generate electricity.