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Tina Casey headshot

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Marketers Thread a Narrow Needle

By Tina Casey
Fuel Cell

BMW Group has joined a very select club of automakers that are trying to market hydrogen fuel cell electric passenger cars. The company is forging ahead with cold weather trials for its iX5 Hydrogen SUV, despite an emerging consensus that battery pack technology will continue to dominate the field into the foreseeable future. The cold weather trial, though, could explain why BMW and a few other automakers could pick off a small but significant slice of the passenger car market for themselves.

Public policy and the fuel cell car market

Fuel cell electric vehicles are electric vehicles (EVs), just like their battery powered cousins. The main difference is that fuel cells generate electricity on-the-go, through a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. They can be refueled in just a few minutes, like a gas-powered car, and they can have longer range than either battery or cars fueled by gasoline.

Nevertheless, the market for battery-powered passenger cars, SUVs and pickup trucks is growing exponentially, while very few buyers are interested in fuel cell cars for personal use.

As a matter of rapid decarbonization and public policy, that makes the case against promoting fuel cells seem pretty straightforward. A recent article in the journal Nature, for example, describes how battery electric vehicles have far outstripped fuel cell vehicle sales. For the sake of rapid decarbonization, the argument goes, the focus should be on accelerating battery-powered vehicles.

Performance, performance, performance

Public policy aside, though, some automakers continue to promote fuel cell technology, and BMW seems to have spotted an opportunity to make money. With the iX5 Hydrogen, the company seems to be aiming to attract potential electric vehicle buyers who won’t give up on gas-powered cars because they are still wary of battery performance.

As with other automakers, BMW does make an effort to reassure its customers that battery electric vehicles perform as well as – if not better than – conventional cars.

The company also demonstrated its firm commitment to battery power last year, when it partnered with Ford to invest in new solid state battery technology. BMW has also issued a new sustainability plan that includes an emphasis on EV battery recycling.

Still, BMW seems to have its sights set on a small but potentially strong cohort of willing EV buyers who are not convinced by the battery performance message. Even if their concerns over battery performance are totally unfounded, they are still waiting until a superior zero-emission driving experience comes along.

BMW Group appears to be banking that it can reel in this group of potential EV buyers more quickly, by offering them a fuel cell alternative.

Cold-testing the BMW fuel cell car

To be clear, battery technology is improving practically by the minute, and electric vehicle drivers can easily factor in the effect of cold weather on driving range. For that matter, cold weather is not even a consideration for millions of EV drivers in warm or temperate climates.

Still, perceptions can make a difference when one is trying to sell high end cars. To the extent that cold weather performance sticks in the minds of potential EV buyers, the message behind the iX5 Hydrogen is that fuel cell technology puts that issue to bed.

BMW Group has been testing the iX5 Hydrogen close to the Arctic Circle, in northern reaches of Sweden. The workout includes public roads as well as the company's testing facility in Arjeplog.

In website article posted on March 10, BMW focused on the Arctic Circle regimen:

"Despite harsh below-zero temperatures and the most challenging conditions such as ice and snow, all drive components of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen – from the fuel cell system to the hydrogen tanks and the power buffer battery to the central vehicle control unit – impressively underlined their reliability and suitability for everyday use."

"Testing under extreme weather conditions is a prerequisite in the vehicle development process," BMW Group emphasized.

For fuel cell vehicles, BMW stays on message

Frank Weber, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Development, drew additional attention to potential EV buyers who have qualms, imagined or not, about battery performance in cold weather.

“The winter testing under extreme conditions clearly shows that the BMW iX5 Hydrogen can also deliver full performance in temperatures of -20°C and therefore represents a viable alternative to a vehicle powered by a battery-electric drive system,” he said.

BMW also took the opportunity to leverage the familiar experience of pumping gas to lure hesitant EV buyers into the fuel cell fold. Recharging the iX5 Hydrogen takes only takes three to four minutes "even in frosty conditions," the article noted.

Not ready for prime time - yet

Despite the digs at EV battery performance, BMW does not seem ready to bet the ranch on the iX5 Hydrogen SUV, at least not yet. The company committed to a limited production series when it began teasing the idea of a hydrogen fuel cell car in its lineup a couple of years ago, and the March 10 article confirmed that modest goal.

BMW Group also indicated that it still views fuel cell propulsion as a supplement to its battery EV business, rather than a competing branch of the company.

"The data obtained so far from the demanding test program represents a significant milestone for the BMW Group in developing CO2-free driving pleasure," the company wrote, adding that it expects to produce a "small series" before the year is out.

Zero emission mobility and the big picture

Not too many other leading automakers are active in the area of personal fuel cell cars. One notable exception is Toyota, which continues to promote its Mirai fuel cell passenger car.

Last week Toyota introduced its new Teammate driver assist technology to the Mirai package along with a hydrogen fuel credit of up to $15,000, indicating that the company may be planning to lure some of its Lexus customers over to the fuel cell experience.

Meanwhile, Hyundai is still dedicated to its Nexo FCEV, and Tata Motors subsidiary Jaguar Land Rover recently entered the fuel cell field with an SUV edition.

Just a few years ago, all this activity would have meant little or nothing for global economic decarbonization. In fact, it would have been great news for fossil energy stakeholders. The main source of hydrogen is natural gas, and coal to a lesser extent. In that scenario, battery power is a more sustainable choice.

Fortunately, the emerging green hydrogen trend has flipped the script. Under a green hydrogen scenario, fuel cell cars could provide drivers with a lower-carbon alternative in regions where battery vehicles still depend on a grid mix that includes gas and coal power plants.

With green hydrogen in hand, fuel cell passenger cars could play a small but significant role in making the global decarbonization timeline as short as possible. That’s still an open question, but the buyer response to BMW’s limited bet on fuel cell SUVs could provide at least part of the answer by the end of this year.

Image credit via BMW Media Relations

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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