There were signs a year ago, although somewhat vague, that BMW was getting serious about producing a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. At the time, the BMW blog stated that “fuel cell technology provides the ideal solution for customers looking for long driving range with zero emissions.” The Wall Street Journal also reported that BMW was deepening its alliance with Toyota, building upon their collaboration with fuel-cell technology. Last week, in a more definitive statement, Klaus Fröhlich—a BMW board member focusing on development—said that BMW will enter the hydrogen-car market with a limited-production vehicle in the early 2020s.
Speaking at Aachen Colloquium, the largest automotive and engine technology congress in Europe, Fröhlich said that obstacles—such as lack of hydrogen infrastructure and the high cost of fuel-cell technology—will subside by about 2025. To prepare for that time, BMW will likely act sooner to put a car into production. “BMW will enter the fuel cell market early in the next decade,” said Fröhlich. He believes that large-scale manufacturing of hydrogen fuel-cell technology will become viable in less than a decade.
“By the time the fundamentals are in place, the BMW Group will also have marketable products ready that are attractive to customers.” He added that BMW’s partnership with Toyota was helping the company to reduce the cost of development.
Fröhlich made it clear that BMW will not be putting all its high-tech eggs in one basket. Instead, it would apply the most suitable emerging technology to the most appropriate use cases: pure battery-electric cars for small- to medium-size cars used for short commutes; plug-in hybrids for mid-size vehicles on regional trips; and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for zero-emissions trips over longer ranges with quick refueling times.
Fröhlich added that the role of conventional gas- and diesel-powered engines will slowly diminish over time—but will continue to play a major role for many years.
In a March 2016 interview with Digital Trends, Merten Jung, BMW’s head of fuel cell, development, also pegged the use of hydrogen fuel-cells for the early 2020s—with a focus on larger long-range cars. He said that for cars that need a range of more than about 185 miles, that the expense of larger battery packs in a pure EV would not make sense—and a fuel-cell car would likely be a better choice. That would be true even though the costs of both batteries and fuel-cells would go down over time. “The year 2020 is when we’ll have the components ready,” he said. “After that, we’ll decide which vehicles will usher in the technology, what markets we’ll break into first, and so forth.”
At a media round table in Los Angeles last week—part of the company’s 100th birthday celebration—Harald Krüger, BMW’s chief executive, said that BMW and Toyota would show off some of their joint accomplishments with hydrogen fuel cells in four years at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. According to The Detroit Bureau, Krüger said, “Tokyo 2020 will be a big statement for fuel cells.” That comment from the company’s chief executive again establishes early in the next decade as a potential turning point for BMW fuel-cell car development.