Forget electric, BMW boss says hydrogen will be ‘hippest thing’ to drive

BMW is hanging in there with hydrogen, which will become the “hippest thing to drive”, according to Oliver Zipse, the chairman of BMW.

“After the electric car, which has been going on for about 10 years and scaling up rapidly, the next trend will be hydrogen,” he says.

It unveiled the fuel cell iX5 Hydrogen concept car at the International Motor Show Germany in 2021.Credit:Bloomberg

BMW has dabbled with the idea of using hydrogen for power for years, even though it is obscure and niche compared with the current enthusiasm surrounding vehicles powered by electricity. In 2005, BMW built 100 “Hydrogen 7” vehicles that used the fuel to power their V12 engines. It unveiled the fuel cell iX5 Hydrogen concept car at the International Motor Show Germany in 2021.

In August, the company started producing fuel-cell systems for a production version of its hydrogen-powered iX5 sport utility vehicle. Zipse indicated it would be sold in the US within the next five years, although in a follow-up phone call a spokesperson declined to confirm that point.

“When it’s more scalable,” Zipse says, “hydrogen will be the hippest thing to drive”.

Bloomberg previously reported that BMW would start delivering fewer than 100 of the iX5 hydrogen vehicles to select partners in Europe, the US, and Asia from the end of this year.

All told, BMW will eventually offer five different drivetrains to help diversify alternative-fuel options within the group, Zipse says.

BMW chief Oliver Zipse is bullish on hydrogen.Credit:Bloomberg photo by Krisztian Bocsi

“To say in the UK about 2030 or the UK and in Europe in 2035, there’s only one drivetrain, that is a dangerous thing,” he says. “For the customers, for the industry, for employment, for the climate, from every angle you look at, that is a dangerous path to go to.”

Zipse’s hydrogen dreams could even extend to the group’s crown jewel, Rolls Royce, which BMW has owned since 1998. The “magic carpet ride” driving style that has become Rolls-Royce’s signature selling point is flexible enough to be powered by alternatives to electricity, says Rolls-Royce Motor Cars chief executive Torsten Muller-Otvos.

“To house, let’s say, fuel cell batteries: why not? I would not rule that out,” Muller-Otvos said during a roundtable conversation on October 17 in Goodwood, England, on the eve of the debut of the company’s first electric vehicle, Spectre.

“There is a belief in the group that this is maybe the long-term future.”

Such a vehicle would contain a hydrogen fuel-cell drivetrain combined with BMW’s electric “eDrive” system. It works by converting hydrogen into electricity to reach an electrical output of up to 125 kilowatts/170 horsepower and total system output of nearly 375hp, with water vapour as the only emission, according to the brand.

Hydrogen’s big advantage over electric power, which requires an extensive and so-far non-existent charging network, is that it can supply fuel cells stored in carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic tanks.

“There will [soon] be markets where you must drive emission-free, but you do not have access to public charging infrastructure,” Zipse says. “You could argue, well you also don’t have access to hydrogen infrastructure, but this is very simple to do: it’s a tank which you put in there like an old [gas] tank, and you recharge it every six months or 12 months.”

Fuel cells at BMW would also help reduce its dependency on raw materials such as lithium and cobalt, because the hydrogen-based system uses recyclable components made of aluminum, steel, and platinum.

BMW’s hydrogen plans could even extend to the group’s crown jewel, Rolls Royce.Credit:AP

Zipse’s continued commitment to prioritising hydrogen has become an increasingly outlier position in the automotive world. In the past five years, electric-only vehicles have become the dominant alternative fuel—if not yet on the road, where fewer than 3 per cent of new cars have plugs, at least at car shows and new-car launches.

Rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi scrapped their own plans to develop fuel-cell vehicles and instead have poured tens of billions of dollars into developing pure-electric vehicle. Porsche went public to finance its own electric aspirations.

BMW will make half of all new-car sales electric by 2030 across the group, which includes MINI and Rolls-Royce.


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