BMW develops fuel cell drive for large series cars

Business news |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

According to a report in the business newspaper Handelsblatt, BMW is not only planning the obligatory battery-electric drive for its future project Neue Klasse (“New Class”), but also a fuel cell drive. Corresponding plans are currently being drawn up by a project team called N-Car. According to Handelsblatt, this team is considering how much lithium and cobalt will still be available at the end of the decade and how a fuel cell drive can be made economically viable in large-scale production. The newspaper quotes BMW CEO Oliver Zipse as saying “We will make a big leap with the Neue Klasse. The Neue Klasse defines what the BMW Group will stand for in the future.”

In doing so, Handelsblatt attests that BMW is lagging behind its peers in the switchover from the combustion engine to electric drives – and is by no means alone in this view. BMW’s first electrically powered model, the i3, proved to be a failure, despite – or perhaps because of – its very ambitious technology; production was recently halted. For example, its body was largely built on carbon fibre. This material allows very light vehicles but is difficult to work with; it made the i3 too expensive for many potential customers.

So now the Neue Klasse is supposed to turn things around. It initially consists of two models with the development code NA0 and NA5. They are a mid-size sedan and an SUV. The first pre-series vehicle is to be produced at a BMW plant in Hungary as early as September 2024.

In addition to the now common battery-electric drive, BMW is also planning model variants with hydrogen drive. According to Handelsblatt, Zipse said: “I can well imagine that we will also see the fuel cell in series production in the Neue Klasse in the future. Hydrogen as an energy carrier will play an important role in many regions of the world.”

This would not be BMW’s first experiment with hydrogen as an energy carrier: about 15 years ago, the Bavarian manufacturer already built a prototype vehicle powered by the innovative energy carrier. However, the BMW engineers did not use the gas to generate electrical energy, but to propel a just marginally modified conventional combustion engine. But this drive principle did not catch on, and the hydrogen BMW found a honourable place in a museum. Nevertheless, BMW engineers continued to brood over the use of hydrogen to propel passenger cars; two years ago, the company presented a such a drive.

For its Neue Klasse, BMW is also planning a conventional battery-electric drive as the basic engine, albeit with more advanced batteries. In future, the company will not use prismatic battery cells, but round ones – just like Tesla, because they are cheaper to produce.

BMW is holding back on details about the fuel cell drive. But it looks like this drive is something like a second line of defence in BMW’s plans – in case the basic materials for battery production become scarce. There are already cautionary voices from science and research warning of just that. If this were to happen, BMW would have a significant lead over the competition with its H2 developments.

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