- BMW won't commit to ending combustion engines
- Battery EVs will be a big part of BMW’s future, but it’s not realistic to expect charging infrastructure to be sufficient to meet all users’ needs
- Converting petrol stations to hydrogen stations takes just 2 days, far easier than large scale deployment of EV chargers and hooking them to power grid
The BMW Group has one of the widest portfolio of EV models (5 BMW i Series, 1 MINI, 1 Rolls-Royce). It is also the industry’s leader in carbon-neutral supply chains, going as far as direct sourcing of minerals from ethically-managed mines. You would think that the BMW Group will be jumping both feet into electric mobility like Audi or Lexus, but no.
While its Rolls-Royce Motorcars subsidiary will become an EV-only brand 2030, followed by MINI slightly later, the company’s namesake BMW brand has so far resisted calls to walk-the-talk and end sales of combustion engine models. The reason is not as simple as Elon Musk’s superfans will want to believe.
In a recent World Market Leader Innovation Day organized by German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, BMW Group CEO Oliver Zipse reiterated the Munich-based company’s stance that although the BMW Group is adopting an electric-centric strategy, it is wrong to bet the future on just one technology path.
“We think it's wrong to switch off the combustion engine in Europe,” said Zipse, who disagreed with the Europe Union’s decision to ban combustion engines by 2035.
“The industry will look different in terms of scale and structure than it does today if it goes to just one technology,” said Zipse, who added that governments should remain open to all possible technological solutions.
Zipse said a ‘hard shutdown’ of the combustion engine “would lead to distortions that nobody here can control anymore.” If the transition fails, there is no fallback as one can’t simply restart production of engines.
Although the BMW Group is investing heavily into EVs, it reckons that it is not realistic to expect charging infrastructure to be rolled out fast enough to support the scale of transition necessary to meet Europe’s climate protection goals.
Contrary to his former peer and ex-CEO of Volkswagen Group Herbert Diess, who is a big fan of Elon Musk and once tweeted “'Please listen to science!” deriding hydrogen as a solution, Zipse said hydrogen is “the only raw material that can be sustainably produced and stored.”
Diess has since been removed from his position at VW.
Both Diess and Musk are too invested into battery EVs to consider other alternatives
Companies that are backing hydrogen disagree and say the world cannot hope to scale up the supply of renewable energy to support EVs without investing into hydrogen, as renewable energy is unreliable and is very dependent on weather conditions.
Some form of energy storage is required to store excess energy so that power demand can still be met even when output from solar panels or wind turbines are low.
EV proponents are pushing for batteries to be used at solar and wind farms but there is just not enough batteries to meet demand for EVs and power stations.
In theory, discarded EV batteries that can no longer power cars can be repurposed to store energy in the day and supply power to the grid at night, but this is easier said than done because every EV maker’s batteries have different size, format, chemistry, each requiring their own unique software to manage. It is not possible to mix-match different batteries and re-deploy them at a large scale for use in power stations.
Hyundai's 2MWh Energy Storage System at its Ulsan plant. Discarded xEV batteries that are no longer fit for use in cars are used as a giant power bank, charged by solar power, supplementing power from the grid.
Further supporting the case of hydrogen, Zipse said “You don't need your own charging infrastructure.”
“You can convert a petrol station (to store hydrogen) in two days. The path to get there is relatively short, and unlike with electromobility, where you need connections to the medium-voltage grid, and you need a charging infrastructure for every car. That's a lot of work. That will work, but not as the only solution. This (battery EV solution) is going to take far too long. That's why we firmly believe in hydrogen. It will come and it will come at BMW, I am very, very sure of that,” said Zipse.
BMW is currently working with Toyota to start small-scale production of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen. It started in-house production of fuel cell systems in Munich last month.
The fuel cells are sourced from Toyota, but BMW assembles them into stacks using their own production techniques.
BMW iX5 Hydrogen, production of about 100 units will commence by end-2022
The stack housing itself is manufactured in the light metal foundry at BMW Group Plant Landshut using BMW’s own sand casting technique for small-series models. Final assembly is completed at the company’s hydrogen competency centre in Munich.
BMW started production of fuel cell stacks last month, with cells sourced from Toyota, for its iX5 Hydrogen
Apart from BMW and Toyota, the Hyundai Motor Group is also investing into fuel cells, though the fate of the project for passenger cars is still in question as the next generation Hyundai Nexo is rumoured to be delayed after encountering a serious setback.
Hyundai’s heavy truck division however is still proceeding as planned, having just revealed fuel cell van built in partnership with Iveco. It had also just put five Xcient fuel cell trucks in operation in USA last month.
Mercedes-Benz too is developing fuel cells for its heavy trucks. Its passenger car division is focused only on battery EVs.
In China, Geely is working with Korea’s SK Group to develop fuel cells.
Having become the world’s largest EV market and with a fairly mature EV battery and motor drive suppliers ecosystem, China’s road map for its automotive industry for the next decade is to promote hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have been identified as one of the six industries China needs to develop in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021 to 2025).
The move by China is important, because as the world's largest producer of batteries, China knows more than any other country about promoting and building EVs. If China says a country cannot rely on EVs alone, it's probably worth taking a few steps back from Tesla's rhetoric and understand China's reasoning.
Toyota Mirai and Coaster FCEV bus at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics was the world’s largest demonstration of hydrogen FCEVs, with more than 1,200 FCEVs deployed into service, putting various hydrogen refueling solutions to real-world test.
The Zhangjiakou prefecture is China’s national wind and solar energy storage and transmission demonstration project zone. Excess energy from these renewable sources are stored as hydrogen, which is then converted into electricity by fuel cells to meet gaps in power demand.
Shell now runs one of the world’s largest electrolysers to produce green hydrogen in Zhangjiakou, at 20 MW. The facility will scale up to 60 MW in the next phase.
Hydrogen FCEVs can be refueled in less than 5 minutes, similar to combustion engine cars
Hydrogen energy is divided into 3 categories – grey, blue, and green, representing their CO2 level emission. Grey hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuel sources so it emits CO2; blue is an intermediate stage, where CO2 emitted is stored using carbon capture solutions; green hydrogen is produced using zero-CO2 renewable solar or wind power.
Currently, majority of hydrogen produced are of the grey and blue variety, just like electricity, where coal and natural gas are still the main input fuel / source.
Keyword: Even with 5 iX models, BMW says betting everything on batteries is a bad idea, echoes Toyota's believe in hydrogen fuel cells