BMW Hopes to Ride the Wave of Hydrogen Trucking Stations

The BMW I Vision Dee
The BMW I Vision Dee presented during a press event at the 2023 CES event in Las Vegas. (Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg News)

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BMW AG is hoping to piggyback on future hydrogen fueling stations for trucks to help solve the protracted issue of building an expensive infrastructure network for cars powered by the alternative fuel.

The German luxury carmaker, pushing on with plans for hydrogen models even as EVs proliferate, last year started production of fuel cell systems for a small test fleet of cars. BMW Chief Executive Officer Oliver Zipse sees the zero-emission technology as a climate-friendly option for as many as 30% of its customers.

“The key is to build combined hydrogen gas stations for passenger cars and trucks,“ Jürgen Guldner, who leads BMW’s hydrogen technology program, said in an interview. “It’s much easier to set up hydrogen stations for larger truck fleets as logistics operators already show interest in this.”

BMW’s championing of the decades-old technology comes as its use in passenger cars remains niche and struggles to compete with declining battery costs in EVs. Significant and costly technical hurdles remain, prompting rival Mercedes-Benz AG to phase out making the GLC fuel cell SUV in 2020 to concentrate on battery-powered cars. Audi shelved hydrogen test-fleet plans for the same reason.

Global spending on hydrogen fuel cells last year was minimal at $2 billion across vehicles and refueling, according to Bloomberg NEF. In the same period, investments in public EV charging alone exceeded $24 billion.

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Volvo AB, which formed a venture with Daimler Truck Holding AG in 2021 to lower the cost of hydrogen trucks, said carmakers joining in on hydrogen infrastructure would help speed its rollout. The world’s two biggest truck makers plan to start making hydrogen fuel cells from 2025.

“The more we are who can unite around this network, the faster it will happen,” Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt said. “It will probably be similar to what we see in the case of diesel. There you have coordination and piggy-backing even if there are specific pumps and such.”

BMW has dabbled in hydrogen for years, building 100 “Hydrogen 7” vehicles that used the fuel in 2005. For the past decade, the luxury-car maker has collaborated with Toyota Motor Corp., which provides the fuel-cell stacks generating electric power from hydrogen and oxygen for the iX5 test fleet. Development will benefit from plans for hydrogen trucks, as the drivetrains for commercial and passenger vehicles share most parts, BMW’s Guldner said.

In August, BMW started producing fuel cell systems for a fleet of fewer than 100 hydrogen-powered iX5 SUVs as part of a two-year test in Europe, U.S. and Asia. CEO Zipse sees hydrogen cars as the preferred option for drivers frequently making longer journeys who’ll struggle with patchy charging infrastructure for battery-only cars.

While BMW still pursues its increasingly outlier position on hydrogen, making the cars on its “Neue Klasse” electric-vehicle underpinnings from 2025 remains up in the air. Costs need to come down to the level of purely-battery powered cars for mass production, Guldner said.

“Currently, our hydrogen tanks have a large diameter,” he said, which wouldn’t fit into vehicles made on the “Neue Klasse” vehicle architecture. “We’d need to shrink hydrogen tank cylinder diameters considerably to fit them.”

With assistance from Rafaela Lindeberg.

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