BMW Pursues Hydrogen, In Addition to Electric Vehicles

Business, Technology  /   /  By Bradley Berman

For the past few years, BMW has used battery-electric vehicles as the cornerstone of its innovative eco-friendly i brand. The line of battery-powered cars—starting with the small iconoclastic i3 EV and the hip futuristic i8 plug-in hybrid—were designed to show the future direction for the company, and for sustainable mobility at large. But in recent months, there’s mounting evidence that energy will not only be stored in batteries, but as gaseous hydrogen in tanks, on BMW’s i vehicles.

The BMW blog and other websites reported that the third vehicle in the i-brand line-up would likely be a mid-sized i5—perhaps even a crossover version.

There are no confirmed images of the future i5. The photo above shows the conventional 5-Series.

The larger platform would represent key challenges compared to the compact i3, which was always viewed as a city car. As a small EV, a modest driving range of about 70 to 80 miles is acceptable. Consumers wanting to take the i3 on longer trips have the option of buying the trim-level with a range-extending engine that uses fossil fuels to provide an additional 70 or so more miles of driving—before needing to recharge. The i8 supercar is also a plug-in hybrid that used both electricity and gas.

The BMW blog states: “While pure battery-powered electric vehicles are primarily used for city driving and short distances, the fuel cell technology provides the ideal solution for customers looking for a high driving range with zero emissions.” This echoes what I’ve heard for years regarding the relative applications of the two competing zero-emission technologies:

  • For short-range driving in small cars, use battery-electric vehicles
  • For long-distance driving in medium- to large vehicles, use hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles

The fact that BMW offers both pure EV and plug-in hybrid versions of the i3 is also noteworthy. Perhaps, the i5 will also be available with multiple powertrain options—as many vehicles across the industry come in various combinations of conventional, diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and EV flavors.

Audi might be taking a similar approach. Car and Driver reported that the Q6 concept crossover that debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week—while a pure 300-mile range EV in its current incarnation (slated for early 2018)— could be “joined by hydrogen-powered and plug-in-hybrid derivatives.”

There’s one more piece of evidence about BMW moving in the hydrogen direction, from the floor of the Frankfurt show. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that BMW is deepening its alliance with Toyota, as the two companies build upon their existing work on fuel cell technology.

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