BMW starts testing first hydrogen fuel-cell car

BMW will test a vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells on public roads this month as the German automaker looks to expand clean-car offerings after rolling out the battery powered i3 in 2013.

The company plans “a technically mature, customer-ready vehicle some time after 2020,” Matthias Klietz, head of powertrain research, told journalists at BMW’s test track in Miramas, France. “By around 2025 to 2030, we expect fuel cell cars to have an established presence, but there are challenges that remain, like building the refuelling infrastructure.”

BMW is developing fuel cells with Japanese partner Toyota Motor, and it demonstrated a 5-Series Gran Turismo prototype in Miramas on Wednesday that uses the companies’ joint technology. The model is part of the car industry’s multibillion dollar effort to create alternative powering setups and improve fuel use to meet tightening emissions rules.

Fuel cells, which have provided spacecraft with power since the 1960s, produce electricity by reacting hydrogen with air, enabling longer travel than battery-driven vehicles while emitting only water vapour rather than carbon dioxide. Disadvantages include a lack of service stations equipped to replenish the hydrogen gas, and the high cost of rare metals needed for the technology.

On a trip around the Miramas track, the Gran Turismo handled like any other electric car, except for a hissing sound during sharp acceleration from a pump passing hydrogen and air through the fuel cells.

BMW also showed a plug-in hybrid version of its van-like 2-Series Active Tourer, due to go on sale next year, and a 1-Series compact equipped with a conventional motor that uses water injection to boost fuel efficiency.

Demand Challenge

By the start of 2018, the world’s fleet of fuel-cell cars will number just 8,400, up from a total 1,275 at the end of this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates. Toyota and Japanese competitors Nissan and Honda pledged on Wednesday to contribute funds to developing a hydrogen-fueling network in the country.

The fuel-cell Gran Turismo has a range of 500km before refuelling. That’s more than triple the i3’s 160km. The i3’s batteries take at least five hours to recharge, compared with five minutes to fill the prototype’s hydrogen tank.

“Technically, we’re ready to put fuel-cell cars on the road, but so far it remains too expensive,” said Axel Ruecker, who’s part of the hydrogen development team at Munich-based BMW. “Making fuel-cell technology a reality is a task not just for carmakers, but for the whole of society.”

Toyota’s Mirai

Toyota, the world’s biggest auto manufacturer, began sales in December of the Mirai fuel-cell sedan, its first production vehicle to run on hydrogen. The four-door model costs $62,000 in the US, where the company is targeting 3,000 deliveries of the car through 2017.

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