BMW does not believe in 100% electric and launches its hydrogen SUV: why it is a mistake

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BMW has just launched its hydrogen-powered BMW iX5 as a pilot program. One hundred hydrogen cars will be produced to power this type of engine. Oliver Zipse, the head of BMW, takes the opportunity to state that he does not believe in electric cars with batteries. Using arguments… a bit old fashioned! We explain everything to you.

The hydrogen car is making a lot of noise right now. At the last Paris Motor Show, in October 2023, two French companies presented hydrogen cars: the NamX, an SUV with interchangeable capsules, and the Hopium Machina. We knew that BMW was working hard on the project of a BMW X5 that runs on a fuel cell, its name: BMW iX5 Hydrogen. At the time, we pointed out the bad idea of ​​a hydrogen car for light mobility needs.

BMW continues its momentum and has just announced the launch of a pilot program. In practice, a few hundred BMW iX5 Hydrogen will be produced in the coming months, to demonstrate for different target groups BMW tells us in its press release. But if we are to believe the media automotive cleaning who has been able to test the car, it is a matter of promoting it” with the media and political institutions“. A kind of lobby, in other words.

BMW doesn’t just want 100% electric cars

And precisely, the head of BMW, Oliver Zipse, does not appreciate 100% electric cars that work with lithium batteries. The man announces, referring to electric cars, that a ” technology alone will not be enough to enable climate neutral mobility around the world » before adding that « electricity in the only solution, I think it can’t be done« .

BMW iX5 Hydrogen
BMW iX5 Hydrogen

The CEO of the German group then refers to several issues: the difficult access to charging stations in certain geographical areas, the scarcity of materials used in the batteries and the weight of the latter. On the contrary, he believes that hydrogen can solve all these problems. Thanks to ultra-fast filling (we are talking less than five minutes), much less materials used (about 500 grams in hydrogen against 23 kg for a NMC lithium battery) and weight plus content.

On this last point, the BMW iX5 Hydrogen weighs about the same as the BMW X5 xDrive45e plug-in hybrid on which it is based. That’s 2.5 tons, that is about 400 kg more than the gasoline version of this same SUV. This is, for example, the weight of a 60 kWh Tesla Model 3 Propulsion battery, which contains no cobalt thanks to LFP technology. But BMW admitted not having optimized the weight of the machine, for the moment.

Cobalt and lithium, we don’t want them anymore

Regarding the materials used, BMW specifies that the fuel cell of a hydrogen car needs cobalt and lithium in small amounts for the small 1.5 kWh buffer battery, but also platinum for the fuel cell. Before you compare with the battery electric car which also needs cobalt and lithium (in very large quantities), but not platinum. A comparison in favor of the hydrogen car… but the manufacturer forgot a small detail.

BMW iX5 Hydrogen
BMW iX5 Hydrogen

Cobalt-free batteries (LFP) represent a growing share of sales (around 30% by the end of 2022), but it is true that cobalt-incorporated batteries (NMC, NMA, etc.) continue to represent the vast majority of batteries on the market. . However, this was without counting on the expected boom in non-lithium (and non-cobalt) batteries: sodium batteries. These arrive this year, and are initially planned for small, city-type electric cars.

The advantages of hydrogen cars

BMW believes that hydrogen cars can be very useful for certain uses: in the dead of winter (because their autonomy does not decrease much in the cold, unlike electric cars), if you have a trailer, or if you live in an area with few or no fast chargers. Hydrogen cars are much faster to charge than electric cars…for now.

It takes less than five minutes to fill up with hydrogen (but watch out for leaks, with a higher global warming potential than CO2) compared to around 30 minutes for an electric car. But the innovation in the field is almost revolutionary: in Europe, the best electric cars need 18 minutes to go from 10 to 80% battery. Electric cars that require just 10 minutes in the same exercise are planned in 2023, thanks to Chinese battery giant CATL.

And that without counting on the battery change system, implemented by the Chinese manufacturer Nio in Europe, which allows fill up with electrons in less than five minutes. We had also been able to try it in Germany, and the experience was amazing.

BMW iX5 Hydrogen: a hybrid electric car?

Now let’s move on to the BMW iX5 Hydrogen itself. It is based on the BMW X5 plug-in hybrid and incorporates a fuel cell with an output of 125 kW (170 hp). This is used to directly power the rear electric motor, which is rated at 295 kW (401 hp). If the engine demands full power, the fuel cell is backed by a small lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 1.5 kWh, adding 170 kW (231 hp) to the mix.

The battery is recharged by the fuel cell, thanks to hydrogen, but also during deceleration, thanks to regenerative braking. The set then allows the SUV to go from 0 to 100 km/h in 6 seconds, with a top speed of 180 km/h. The 6 kg of hydrogen translates into a theoretical autonomy of 504 km in the combined cycle of WLTP certification. It is much like a Tesla Model 3 Propulsion taken as an example a little above. We are therefore far from the 1,000 km promised by certain startups, or the 2,000 km of the aborted Volkswagen project.

In addition, electric cars with immense autonomy, such as the Lucid Air, announce 883 km of autonomy in the WLTP cycle. Compare with 650 km for the Toyota Mirai and 666 km for the Hyundai Nexo.

The disadvantages of hydrogen cars

On paper, the hydrogen car has superior qualities to the battery electric car. Its biggest advantage is its ability to “recharge” in less than five minutes. But unfortunately, this advantage is quickly erased by many disadvantages.

We have already talked about the risk of leaks, but we must also mention the other issues, which make the hydrogen car never an alternative to the battery electric car. These include the excessive price of hydrogen charging stations, the catastrophic efficiency of fuel cells (which require two to three times as much electricity to drive the same distance as an electric car), the global demand for carbon-free energy that will require an astronomical amount of green hydrogen but also the price of the latter.

It is for all these reasons that the IPCC envisions hydrogen as an energy vector for modes of transport that cannot be battery-based. This is the case for heavy transport (aviation, maritime, heavy vehicles, etc.), even if the Tesla Semi proves that heavy road transport can be contemplated with batteries.

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