Tuesday, July 23, 2024
Cars

BMW takes hydrogen babysteps, but fuel-cell vehicles still stuck in slow lane


BMW AG is showing off its first hydrogen-powered iX5 sport utility vehicles this year but still has some way to go to make the technology a viable alternative to battery-electric cars.

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The German manufacturer plans to ship around 80 of the SUVs to Europe, Asia, the U.S. and the Middle East for use in test drives and car shows, part of a drive to offer customers options outside of pure battery cars in the electric shift. Hydrogen vehicles are struggling to take off because of high costs and a fledgling fuelling infrastructure.

“Hydrogen is a versatile energy source that has a key role to play in the energy transition process and therefore in climate protection,” BMW chief executive officer Oliver Zipse said in a statement. “One technology on its own will not be enough to enable climate-neutral mobility.”

That BMW’s test fleet remains small is a reflection of the difficulties hydrogen cars — a technology companies have worked on for decades — have been having breaking into the mainstream. Only around 60,000 of them are on the roads, with Hyundai Motor Co.’s Nexo the bestseller last year. That compares with a fleet of roughly 19 million battery-electric vehicles, according to BloombergNEF estimates.

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Fuel-cell systems still struggle to compete with lithium-ion batteries on costs even after the EV industry saw the first increase in pack prices last year since BNEF began tracking them in 2010. Mercedes-Benz AG has phased out the hydrogen-powered variant of its GLC SUV it built in small batches. While Honda Motor Co. stopped production of its Clarity hydrogen model in 2021, it has announced plans to start production of a fuel-cell vehicle in the U.S. in 2024.

BMW is weighing to start serial production of hydrogen models in the second half of this decade, but any sales push makes sense only once adequate infrastructure becomes available, said Frank Weber, the carmaker’s technology chief. Just 750 hydrogen refuelling stations were in operation globally last year, according to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher.

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Getting the hydrogen-powered iX5 in front of the public is one way of highlighting the technology’s strong points, BMW said. Filling up the iX5 with hydrogen takes only four minutes, compared with about 30 minutes for charging the most advanced battery-powered vehicles.

BMW expects the adoption of hydrogen long-haul trucks to speed up installations of refuelling stations, in a boon also to passenger cars. The company hopes that the cost of fuel-cell components comes down once hydrogen rigs are produced at scale.

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“We are confident that at the end of the decade, prices for an electric vehicle with a larger battery and fuel cell cars will be on par,” Weber said.

Still, BMW’s small test fleet suggests the German company isn’t expecting larger-scale adoption anytime soon. It’s also keeping the vehicles on a tight leash: aside from company-organized test drives, the cars won’t be handed out to drivers for everyday use. 

“Fuel-cell cars are always going to be more expensive than battery-powered ones,” said BNEF analyst Martin Tengler. “Maybe BMW is targeting a niche segment, there might some money to be made. But the big picture is that it’s best to leave hydrogen cars where they have always been — just around the corner.”



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