The emerging consensus around zero emission mobility is that battery-electric vehicles will command the personal transportation market well into the future. Nevertheless, some of the world’s leading automakers continue to promote hydrogen fuel cell electric cars and SUVs. That’s a real head-scratcher, but BMW’s messaging for its iX5 Hydrogen SUV could provide some insights into the reasoning behind the fuel cell strategy.
Performance, Performance, Performance
As a matter of public policy, the case against fuel cells seems pretty straightforward. A recent article in the journal Nature, for example, describes how battery-electric vehicles have outstripped fuel cell technology in the area of zero emission road transportation.
In terms of actually selling cars, though, the calculation can be somewhat different, as illustrated by BMW Group.
BMW’s messaging on its battery EVs is all about performance, as illustrated by this snippet from its US website:
“Electric motors, designed and built by BMW, yield powerful performance, impressive torque, and exceptional drivability. All-electric BMWs have been infused by the same engineering expertise that has defined BMW for more than a century.”
Last year BMW also raised its stake in the EV battery industry, further confirming its commitment to to battery-driven electrification.
Still, the company seems to be zeroing in on a shrinking but strong cohort of willing EV buyers who are not convinced by the battery performance message. Even if their concerns over battery performance are unfounded, changing hearts and minds could be a time consuming exercise.
BMW Group appears to be banking that it can reel in this group of potential EV buyers more quickly, by offering them a fuel cell alternative.
Cold-Testing The BMW Fuel Cell Car
To be clear, EV battery technology is improving practically by the minute, and EV drivers can easily factor in the effect of cold weather on driving range for their daily commutes and other trips. For that matter, cold weather is not even a consideration for millions of EV drivers in warm or temperate climates.
Still, perceptions can make a difference when one is trying to sell cars. To the extent that cold weather performance sticks in the minds of potential EV buyers, BMW is banking on fuel cell technology to put that issue to bed, and that is evident from the messaging around the BMW iX5 Hydrogen SUV.
BMW Group has been testing the iX5 Hydrogen hard by the Arctic Circle, in northern reaches of Sweden. The workout routine includes public roads, as well as the company’s testing facility in Arjeplog.
In website article posted on March 10, BMW had this to say about the Arctic Circle regimen:
“Despite harsh below-zero temperatures and the most challenging conditions such as ice and snow, all drive components of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen – from the fuel cell system to the hydrogen tanks and the power buffer battery to the central vehicle control unit – impressively underlined their reliability and suitability for everyday use.”
“Testing under extreme weather conditions is a prerequisite in the vehicle development process,” BMW Group emphasized.
BMW Really Is On Message
BMW also leverages the familiar experience of pumping gas to lure hesitant EV buyers into the fuel cell fold. Recharging the iX5 hydrogen tanks only takes three to four minutes “even in frosty conditions,” the company observes.
Still, the messaging is clearly targeting potential EV buyers who have qualms, imagined or not, about battery performance.
“The winter testing under extreme conditions clearly shows that the BMW iX5 Hydrogen can also deliver full performance in temperatures of -20°C and therefore represents a viable alternative to a vehicle powered by a battery-electric drive system,” emphasizes Frank Weber of BMW AG.
Not Ready For Prime Time Yet
Despite the digs at EV battery performance, BMW does not seem ready to bet the ranch on the iX5 Hydrogen SUV, at least not yet. The company committed only to a limited production series when it began teasing the idea of a hydrogen fuel cell car in its lineup a couple of years ago, and the March 10 article confirmed that modest goal.
BMW Group also indicated that it still views fuel cell propulsion as a supplement to its battery EV business, rather than a competing branch of the company.
“The data obtained so far from the demanding test programme represents a significant milestone for the BMW Group in developing CO2-free driving pleasure,” the company wrote, adding that it expects to produce a “small series” before the year is out.
Zero Emission Mobility & The Big Picture
Not too many other leading auto makers are active in the area of fuel cell cars, SUVs, and light duty trucks. Toyota, for example, is sticking on the Mirai FECV, especially after getting blessed by the Pope himself.
Last week Toyota introduced its new Teammate driver assist technology to the Mirai package along with a hydrogen fuel credit of up to $15,000, so it looks like the company is planning to lure some of its Lexus gasmobile customers over to the fuel cell experience.
What could they possibly be thinking? They could be thinking that the emerging green H2 market will provide an alternative for potential EV buyers who live in areas where battery EV charging still depends on a grid mix of fossil or nuclear energy.
Considering how quickly interest in the green H2 area is growing, FCEV marketers could also be thinking that the cost of a green hydrogen refill will eventually be competitive with recharging a battery, let alone filling up a gas tank.
That’s quite far off in the future, though. For the here an now, fuel cells are more likely to populate the zero emission personal mobility field in the form of off-grid fast charging stations for battery EVs.
The Extreme E racing circuit has been showcasing the use of fuel cells to power off-grid EV battery charging stations, with green H2 sourced on site through a solar powered electrolysis system.
GM is also leveraging its Hydrotec fuel cell arm for transportable, off-grid EV fast charging in addition to pursuing opportunities in the aerospace, locomotive and heavy duty truck areas, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: BMW iX5 Hydrogen FCEV courtesy of BMW Group.