BMW Says Hydrogen Power Still an Option, Bullish on EVs

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

While BMW anticipates that half of its total sales will stem from electric vehicles by 2030, it recently announced that hydrogen power is still on the table. In fact, the German brand has suggested that it may even bring one to market in a few years.

On Wednesday, the premium carmaker made a slew of announcements about how it anticipates higher deliveries and better profit margins for 2023. But it remained cautious of high material prices and a lackluster economic situation in a large number of markets. BMW then expressed optimism about its role as an EV manufacturer, stating that one-fourth of new sales would be all-electric by 2025 – with the number rising dramatically from there.

The company speculated that may include hydrogen-powered vehicles – which, according to Reuters, leadership suggested may end up being almost as important as battery-driven automobiles in the coming years.

From Reuters:

One of the most prominent advocates among carmakers of hydrogen fuel cell technology as a worthwhile option alongside battery-powered cars, Chief Executive Oliver Zipse said he could also envisage a hydrogen-powered vehicle going into production by mid-decade.
Key to making that happen is an expansion of the hydrogen fuelling [sic] network, which was mainly in the hands of the heavy vehicle transport industry, development chief Frank Weber added in a press conference dedicated to the company's annual results.
"We see hydrogen-electric vehicles as a meaningful complement to e-mobility, even with something of a time lag," Zipse said.
The BMW iX5 Hydrogen* test vehicle, with a range of 500 km (310 miles) and an ability to refuel in three to four minutes, was being tested in various countries, BMW said in a statement.

Though we’ve been down this road before. Alternative energy vehicles became immensely popular as we transitioned into the current millennium. But the hydrogen-powered ones never really caught on, effectively serving as low-volume test platforms one could buy in the few regions in the world that actually had a robust hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Frequently lauded in the media as the next big thing, they started losing ground to battery-powered vehicles – which have a long and storied history of their own.

Electric cars have been around since the late 1800s and started catching on with consumers early in the twenty century. They were particularly popular in urban environments, as they required less routine maintenance and didn’t emit steam or exhaust gasses. But gasoline cars tended to be better suited for longer distances and were typically far more cost-effective. Countries expanding roadway networks – encouraging people to drive longer distances – and plummeting fuel prices ended up ensuring the dominance of internal combustion engines.

Though things have changed quite a bit over the last 20 years. With manufacturers investing heavily in electrification, we’ve seen the technology making a comeback. For a while, the hype included hydrogen-powered vehicles – which convert compressed gasses into electrical energy via fuel cell stacks, with the only emission being whatever vapor. BMW even climbed aboard the hype train for a while, announcing hydrogen-related development programs with the likes of Toyota and even General Motors roughly a decade ago.

However, European and American brands seemed to snub the technology as EVs became more popular. Only Japanese (and, to a lesser extent, Korean) automakers seemed to remain committed to developing hydrogen-powered vehicles. So, BMW’s announcement that it’s even considering working fuel cells into a hypothetical production model is kind of surprising. Then again, it’s getting the relevant hardware from Toyota – so maybe we don’t need to give the brand too much credit.

It’s also hard to see hydrogen power taking off without there being a massive influx of fueling stations. While the United States has locations dotted around the country, only California really has the kind of density that would make ownership possible. But even then you’d effectively be prohibited from leaving the state due to the limited number of stations elsewhere. Japan and South Korea have much more comprehensive hydrogen fueling networks. But drivers would still need to plot their trips carefully to avoid venturing into areas where they might end up stranded. It’s a similar situation in Europe, with some countries planning to build up those networks while others don’t seem interested.

BMW is aware of this and has suggested that hydrogen vehicles may help fill a gap created by EVs. Despite offering advantages in terms of home charging, electric cars still take far longer to recharge/refuel than combustion-driven automobiles. Hydrogen power is one possible way around this while satisfying stringent emission mandates in places like the EU. They’re already capable of offering over 300 miles of range per tank and can be refueled within 3 to 5 minutes. Though it won’t be of much use to consumers until the infrastructure has been expanded and that could take decades.

[Image: Hadrian/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 5 comments
  • Sayahh Sayahh on Mar 16, 2023

    So Toyota got BMW to build them a Supra AND try to convince the world that Toyota's failure to bet on EVs and focusing on hydrogen instead was not a bad decision.

  • Roverv8i Roverv8i on Mar 17, 2023

    I have lately realized that people assume that hydrogen powered seems to mean fuel cell but that is not the case. Internal combustion engines can be made to run on hydrogen. They seem to be gaining traction in diesel applications. Look up JCB’s work on this. They are moving toward production ready engines with similar power characteristics to diesel. Of course in the case of equipment, fuel is often brought to it vs. going to get it as with passenger vehicles. So, infrastructure will be easier to support. Look up Harry’s Farm YouTube channel. He recently posted a video of his visit to JCB around this topic. While BMW was specifically referring to fuel cells here they have demonstrated hydrogen ICE in the past. I would say that diesel being on the outs is much of what is driving the fuel cell thing as it follows along the electric path. It could also be that H2 ICE engines would end up being heavy like diesels and therefore more suited to commercial and other heavy duty applications.

  • Leonard Ostrander Plants don't unionize. People do, and yes, of course the workers should organize.
  • Jalop1991 Here's something EVangelists don't want to talk about, and why range is important: battery warranties, by industry standard, specify that nothing's wrong with the battery, and they won't replace it, as long as it is able to carry 70% or more of its specified capacity.So you need a lot of day 1 capacity so that down the road, when you're at 70% capacity with a "fully functioning, no problem" car, you're not stuck in used Nissan Leaf territory."Nothing to see here, move along."There's also the question of whether any factory battery warranty survives past the original new car owner. So it's prudent of any second owner to ask that question specifically, and absent any direct written warranty, assume that the second and subsequent owners own any battery problems that may arise.And given that the batteries are a HUGE expense, much more so than an ICE, such exposure is equally huge."Nothing to see here, move along."
  • Roger hopkins The car is in Poland??? It does look good tho...
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X The push for EV's is part of the increase in our premiums. Any damage near the battery pack and the car is a total loss.
  • Geozinger Up until recently this was on my short list of cars to replace my old car. However, it didn't pass the "knee test" with my wife as her bad knee makes it difficult for her to get in and out of a sedan. I saw a number of videos about the car and it seems like the real deal as a sporting sedan. In addition I like the low price, too, but it was bad luck/timing that we didn't get to pull the trigger on this one.