The BMW Hydrogen 7 will be the world’s first hydrogen-powered production vehicle (Photo courtesy of BMW)
BMW just announced that it will be the first major automobile manufacturer in the world to release a hydrogen-powered car with its new Hydrogen 7. This is a serious step towards eventually replacing Toyota as the alternative power kings of the industry.
Okay, I’m thinking it too. BMW Hydrogen 7 is German. The Hindenburg was German. This whole thing is as likely to succeed as a lead balloon…
…or maybe successful as Led Zeppelin?
I must admit that there are some serious roadblocks to BMW’s attempt to make hydrogen a standard, but before I start launching doubts,. I’ll give kudos for how BMW has gone about this. The Hydrogen 7 is basically a standard twelve cylinder 760i, which makes it comfortable, luxurious and a great handling large sedan. (Heck, it’s nicer overall than most people’s houses.) Instead of ripping out the gasoline guts, BMW chose to take the approach of enabling the engine to run on either hydrogen or gasoline. There are two tanks – one for each fuel. The driver simply selects which combustable to use by pressing a single button on the steering wheel. (Did it really have to be on the steering wheel where you can bump it accidentally? I guess I shouldn’t complain, since BMW probably considered making it accessible only by burying it ten menus down in I-Drive.)
The car can go 125 miles on a tank of hydrogen, plus another 300 on gas. So as electric car manufacturers say: “range is not an issue.” The only difference is that with BMW, it really is true. When running on hydrogen, the only emission via the tailpipe is water, which is wonderful… unless, of course, you live in New Orleans. So far, the only downside that seems to exist between the Hydrogen 7 and a standard 7 is performance. The extra weight turns the usual rocket-like acceleration into evolution-like. Zero to 62 mph comes in 9.5 seconds. Top speed is limited to 143 mph instead of the usual 155 mph. Certainly this is not a deal-killer, especially since most environmentally minded people aren’t concerned with frivolous concepts such as blowing the doors off Mustangs and Camaros.
Now comes the time for me to question BMW’s strategy for making hydrogen a standard… There are three things that stand in the way of hydrogen gaining mass acceptance: perception, availability and cost. Perception has a tremendous hurdle to jump with the whole Hindenburg thing. Hydrogen is linked with a big explosion, and it doesn’t matter how often you remind Joe Sixpack that gas also goes boom when you place it next to a spark, the nervousness will continue to haunt consumers’ minds. Then there’s the issue of availability. Distribution is a huge issue, requiring political clout and money to open a network of providers. It has yet to be seen if a German company can affectively beat out the power of the oil lobby to make hydrogen available in enough outlets to make owning a hydrogen-powered vehicle a reasonable play. And unlike corn-based ethanol, there’s enough hydrogen power to support a hydrogen-powered national fleet of cars. (We’d run out of corn in six months or less if all cars ran on E-85 ethanol blend.) It’s just a question of getting the hydrogen processed and delivered. Of course, it makes one wonder why GM and Ford have been so bullish on ethanol.
Finally, there’s cost. We have no idea how much it will cost per mile to run a car on hydrogen power. (One doesn’t really say “miles per gallon” since hydrogen is measured by pound.) If it costs more to buy and run on hydrogen than gas, everyone other than true tree-huggers will stay on gas. Associated with the cost of the fuel is the cost of the vehicle, and this is where I question BMW’s plan of attack. The Hydrogen 7 will likely be a $100,000-plus vehicle when it hits the US. I know what they’re thinking: prove that a hydrogen-powered luxury car can make it, and then every rich wanna-be will want one too. I can’t argue this from an image perspective, but I can take the debate stance that without a critical mass of users, it will be near impossible to create a successful distribution network. With the sales popularity of the 3-series, the hydrogen Bimmer has a better shot for the big time. Using the 7 makes the car akin to the first-gen Prius – more an image car for quirky people, rather than a true alternative for the masses. It’s just that instead of hippies-turned suburbanites, it will be ultra-wealthy, socially-conscious L.A. actors and producers.
But I congratulate BMW for taking a risky move. They’ve sunk a whole hell of a lot of R+D money into this. Maybe, just maybe, this concept will prove a success, and we’ll see the 5 and 3 Series with hydrogen power soon, too. If that happens, the whole automotive landscape could look very interesting in the future.