BMW iX5 Hydrogen begins world tour in Belgium

In March 2022, several demo cars of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen were traveling around Europe to gather merely political support. In the next phase of its road map for the iX5 Hydrogen, BMW now presented the prototype to the press and fleet customers, who could test and refill the car in the region of Antwerp.

Later this year, the pilot line of a little under a hundred iX5 models will be distributed to different regions across the globe to raise further awareness and increase testing. Newmobility was there and talked to Jürgen Guldner, head of BMW’s hydrogen program.

“Fasts refills remain one of the biggest advantages,” says Guldner. He has not even finished summing them all up as the pistol of the hydrogen filling station in the harbor of Antwerps clicks and concludes the process. Mere minutes have passed.

No German brands

The context is peculiar, to say the least. With some ninety-filling hydrogen stations, Germany has by far the most extensive infrastructure in Europe. Most of these stations serve 700 bars and are specifically built for passenger cars. But with only Toyota and Hyundai providing hydrogen models, Germans meekly observe how none of their national brands offer them an alternative.

With Audi backed off from developing hydrogen technology and Mercedes reserving it for commercial and heavy-duty vehicles, all eyes are pointing towards BMW now. If the iX5 is flagged off for production, we must wait at least until 2025. “We can start ramping up by the second half of the decade,” says Guldner, “and have a series of several hydrogen models no sooner than 2023.”

“Excess green hydrogen”

But walking the aisle all by itself – even if there are sound arguments in favor of the technology – is a path full of headwinds for BMW. The carmaker has organized the pilot line tests to gather more interest amongst corporate clients, decision-makers, and fellow carmakers to convince them about the feasibility. Critical voices claim that renewable electricity should be charged directly into battery-powered cars instead of using it to produce hydrogen.

“But at BWM, we believe hydrogen is very useful as storage for excess green electricity, while it can hedge against future challenges with complex grid upgrades and raw material prices.”, says Guldner.

The manager points out that fuel cells use twenty times fewer rare earth materials than battery packs. The soaring lithium prices of last year support this argument. He also adds that building two hydrogen stations is cheaper than one, while scaling up the electricity grid is exactly the opposite and boosts the cost involved.

No buffer but boost

Of course, the iX5 Hydrogen is already a joint project. The applied fuel cells are sourced from technical partner Toyota, also a defender of a multi-tech strategy for decarbonizing transportation.

But BMW has put its twist on the formula by using more cells and not using the battery as a buffer but as a boost. As such, the system output is at 401 hp. In fact, with 170 kW on tap, the battery – though with a capacity of only 3.7 kWh – is more powerful than the fuel cell (125 kW). the tanks can hold almost six kilograms, providing a range of roughly 500 kilometers.

After being presented to the press and corporate customers, BMW’s pilot fleet is headed to Brussels, where decision-makers at the European level will asses the cars. Though the EU has recently adopted laws concerning the definition of green hydrogen production, it still needs to conclude and ratify the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR).

Chicken and the egg

This law would oblige member states to install a hydrogen station every 100 kilometers, facilitating a business case for carmakers to step in with passenger cars. “As before, this still is the chicken and the egg problem,” says Guldner. “But you can’t keep balancing between those two. You need a starting point. And the iX5 Hydrogen very much is.”

The testing program isn’t a leasing or rental formula to gather real-life feedback. The pilot line primarily serves communication and pr needs. It is not known when BMW will decide on series production.

But chances are great that the X5 will be the preferred model. Not only for packaging reasons but also because its home factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, makes it eligible for tax incentives under Joe Bidens Inflation Reduction Act.

Never fading interest

Guldner admits that government subsidies are key in adopting hydrogen as an energy carrier with potential for passenger cars. The pilot line models aren’t built in the USA, though, but at FIZ in Münich, which is BMW’s research and innovation center.

The first hydrogen car BMW produced was the 7 Series V12 from 2005, which used a combustion engine and tanks filled with liquid instead of gaseous hydrogen. The carmaker’s interest has never fully withered. Precursors to the iX5 hydrogen are a one-off i8 and some prototypes of the 5 GT.


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