3 Mar 23

“Hydrogen is the end game, but fleets is where it starts”, says Head of BMW Hydrogen Jürgen Gundler

Many fleet managers are keeping an eye on hydrogen as a zero-emission option, as charging times for battery-powered vehicles significantly influence downtime. BMW, who has readied a pilot fleet of the iX5 Hydrogen, hopes to reach out to them with a suitable car as of mid-decade. “And TCO will be as beneficial as with battery cars”, says Jürgen Guldner, General Program Manager Hydrogen Technology at BMW. During a test drive, Fleet Europe had a deep dive with the German manager.

“At this point, we don’t know how many would buy this car, but fleets are obviously well-placed as early adopters. I know of a taxi company in Paris running on hydrogen thanks to their point-to-point refuelling installation”, says Jürgen Gundler when we ask him about the importance of corporate involvement to turn hydrogen into a reality for both passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

The car hardly has to make a case for itself when we put it through its paces in the surroundings of the harbour of Antwerp. Even though this prototype is not ready for sale, the fuel cell stack in this full-size SUV reacts remarkably swift. Comfort is as high as in any X5, and there’s even a map integrated into the navigation system pinpointing all of Europe’s hydrogen stations.

We spot five in Belgium, which is more or less exemplary for all the other European countries. With ninety stations, Germany is the exception on the map.

Moving too slow

The chicken and the egg dilemma is far from solved. An adequate infrastructure network must precede fuel cell vehicles hitting the market before adoption can gain momentum. Under the AFIR proposal (Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation), the European Parliament has voted for one hydrogen station every hundred kilometers across its territory, but the process still awaits final approval.

“Member states still have to approve, and we really need it, but it moves too slow”, says Guldner, ‘It’s a pity but also understandable. Imagine building a hydrogen station every hundred kilometers in the north of Scandinavia? There should be more local flexibility.”

We ask Guldner if the fast-filling advantage of fuel cells won’t wither as battery technology is ramping up, with ten-minute charging looming by the end of the decade. “Battery technology might be less the problem than the infrastructure. The rollout of the necessary peak power for ultrafast charging will prove cumbersome. And expensive. That’s the advantageous difference. Building two hydrogen stations is cheaper than one. Upgrading the electricity grid only makes BEV driving more costly while charging somewhat deters the driving experience.”

Existing fuel forecourts can be converted for hydrogen, but factor in the on site production of green hydrogen and the cost still hoovers around 5 million euros.

Fleet managers should look for partners

Filling the 6-kilogram large tanks located in the transmission tunnel and underneath the rear bench of the iX5 merely takes minutes, as Gundler demonstrates. “Fleet managers don’t necessarily have to wait for the AFIR ruling to take full effect”, he continues, “my best and prime advice to them - after having spread the word in their company first - would be to reach out for a supplier with the potential of servicing them with a station. Of course, they also have to keep the right driver profile in mind, which are employees spending a lot of time behind the wheel. But I really see a window of opportunity today. Hydrogen society is happening now. The conditions differ greatly from when we launched our first attempt, the 7 Hydrogen, in 2007.”

BMW drew lessons from that experience, namely that burning hydrogen in a combustion engine isn’t the best possible solution for an energy carrier already coping with 70% losses during production. And that walking this aisle alone is entrepreneurial suicide.

Fewer rare earth metals

Unfortunately, indirect support from compatriot brands has been withdrawn. Audi and Mercedes are still members of the Hydrogen Council. Still, both dropped their development programs for a fuel cell passenger car, prioritizing investment in battery-powered drivelines or hydrogen for heavy-duty. Despite an already accessible network in their home country and customers eager to choose a German brand model over the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, the only remaining options on the fuel cell car market. ‘But the ongoing interest and R&D in the LCV category help just as well”, says Guldner.

BMW sources its fuel cell from partner Toyota, with whom it shares the same industrial vision on a multi tech approach toward decarbonization. The stack has been tweaked for more power and a better alignment with the company’s philosophy on driving dynamics. Mission accomplished. The iX5 is the most athletic FCEV we’ve driven.

“Also, BMW believes it’s wise to hedge against the pitfalls of a single technology. The soaring lithium prices have already demonstrated what happens if we all together move along the same path at the same time. Fuel cells contain twenty times fewer rare earth metals than battery packs. As a result, they are more resistant to cost fluctuations from sourcing.”

Roadmap to production

At the pump, one pays around 10 euros per kilo for hydrogen. Prices are expected to go down, but Guldner predicts that “it will be hard for fuel cells to beat domestic BEV charging. Still, in the end, TCO will not be that different. Those pump prices will fall to around 6 euros per kilogram, but like BEVs, there are no moving parts in a fuel cell. In the end, maintenance cost, and overall TCO will be on parity.

Guldner talks about a future where upscaled production has rationalized the price of an FCEV like the iX5 Hydrogen. Shipping it to showrooms exactly like we’re experiencing today would make it four times as expensive as the regular X5.

BMW has yet to give a green light for production. It awaits federal funding approval from the German authorities. But its SUV X5 would be the logical point of departure. Not only for packaging reasons, as the two tanks soak up space, but also because this model is built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So, it would be eligible for a favourable tax credit under Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

If all the puzzle pieces come together, BMW envisions a range of hydrogen models built on a shared architecture with its BEV models called Neue Klasse by the beginning of the next decade. “Hydrogen is the end game”, concludes Guldner, “but fleets is where it starts.”

Image Source: BMW

Authored by: Piet Andries