BMW's move to hydrogen-powered cars comes as technology struggles to hit fast track

Only about 60,000 hydrogen cars are on the roads at present

A hydrogen fuel-cell prototype SUV at a petrol station in Munich. Reuters
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BMW is showing off its first hydrogen-powered iX5 sport utility vehicles this year but still has some way to go to make the technology a viable alternative to battery-electric cars.

The German manufacturer plans to ship about 80 of the SUVs to Europe, Asia, the US and the Middle East for use in test drives and car shows, part of a drive to offer customers options outside of pure battery cars in the electric shift.

Hydrogen vehicles are struggling to take off because of high costs and a fledgling fuelling infrastructure.

“Hydrogen is a versatile energy source that has a key role to play in the energy transition process and therefore in climate protection,” BMW chief executive Oliver Zipse said in a statement.

“One technology on its own will not be enough to enable climate-neutral mobility.”

That BMW’s test fleet remains small is a reflection of the difficulties hydrogen cars — a technology companies have worked on for decades — have been having breaking into the mainstream.

Only about 60,000 of them are on the roads, with Hyundai Motor's Nexo the bestseller last year. That compares with a fleet of roughly 19 million battery-electric vehicles, BloombergNEF estimates show.

Fuel-cell systems still struggle to compete with lithium-ion batteries on costs even after the EV industry saw the first increase in pack prices last year since BNEF began tracking them in 2010.

Mercedes-Benz has phased out the hydrogen-powered variant of its GLC SUV it built in small batches.

While Honda Motor stopped production of its Clarity hydrogen model in 2021, it has announced plans to start production of a fuel-cell vehicle in the US in 2024.

BMW is weighing to start serial production of hydrogen models in the second half of this decade, but any sales push makes sense only once adequate infrastructure becomes available, said Frank Weber, the car maker’s technology chief.

Only 750 hydrogen refuelling stations were in operation globally last year, researcher Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reported.

Getting the hydrogen-powered iX5 in front of the public is one way of highlighting the technology’s strong points, BMW said.

Filling up the iX5 with hydrogen takes only four minutes, compared with about 30 minutes for charging the most advanced battery-powered vehicles.

BMW expects the adoption of hydrogen long-haul lorries to speed up installations of refuelling stations, in a boon also to passenger cars.

The company hopes that the cost of fuel-cell components comes down once hydrogen rigs are produced at scale.

“We are confident that at the end of the decade, prices for an electric vehicle with a larger battery and fuel cell cars will be on par,” Mr Weber said.

Still, BMW’s small test fleet suggests the German company is not expecting larger-scale adoption anytime soon.

It is also keeping the vehicles on a tight leash: Aside from company-organised test drives, the cars will not be handed out to drivers for everyday use.

“Fuel-cell cars are always going to be more expensive than battery-powered ones,” said BNEF analyst Martin Tengler.

“Maybe BMW is targeting a niche segment, there might some money to be made. But the big picture is that it’s best to leave hydrogen cars where they have always been — just around the corner.”

Updated: March 01, 2023, 3:30 AM