BMW’s hydrogen strategy is starting to take shape. The company has been working on hydrogen-powered cars since 1984, but for a long time the focus remained on the internal-combustion engine. The efforts, first shown in a 7-series in the mid-1980s, culminated in 2006 in the V-12–powered Hydrogen 7. Now the company has switched to a different tack.
While those early vehicles were fun to drive, they suffered from the inefficiencies of super-cooling the liquefied hydrogen, and the hydrogen vaporizing in storage. Around the turn of the century, BMW began to research the hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell electric vehicle as an alternative to the hydrogen-powered combustion engine. The result of that research is the matte-black, two-seat sports car you see here, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the i8.
Built atop an early prototype architecture of the i8 plug-in hybrid, this “eDrive Hydrogen Fuel Cell Prototype” is powered by a completely electric, 272-hp powertrain. The passenger compartment of the fully functional, 125-mph-plus sports car uses many i8 components, but the space typically occupied by the rear seats is instead taken up by the hydrogen-electric powertrain.
The car was assembled in BMW’s prototype shop, and it lacks the sophistication of an i8. But the headlight/front-grille treatment and the trapezoid taillights suggest that BMW’s styling department invested more than a cursory glance.
In 2013, BMW’s hydrogen strategy took another decisive turn, when the company announced its cooperation with Toyota, a major proponent of the technology. The tech sharing has led to several prototype vehicles. Two of them were present at a technology backgrounder in Miramas near Marseille, France. Based on the 5-series GT, they were fitted with a “cryogenic pressure vessel,” a double-walled hydrogen tank with 350 bar of vent pressure that integrates easily into the (admittedly, somewhat large) vehicle architecture and can be refueled within minutes and far more conveniently than, say, a CNG vehicle.
We were able to flog the 5-series GT hard on the test track; thanks to the instant torque of the electric powertrain, it feels considerably faster than its 245-hp rating suggests. The level of integration and refinement is remarkably high, and we find BMW’s statement that the technology would be production-ready by around 2020 to be entirely credible.
BMW has said repeatedly that the battery-electric vehicle is a solution only for small and mid-size cars. The company has also pointed out the vast challenges posed by creating an electric-charging infrastructure. The challenges of a hydrogen infrastructure make those pale by comparison. Even so, cost remains the biggest enemy of the hydrogen-powered car—and the fact that the global oil supply simply refuses to dry up.