Editorial: More on BMW, ethanol, hydrogen and hybrids

Earlier Jeremy wrote a post referencing a Detroit News article about a panel discussion on Policies and Issues Affecting Consumer Choices of Vehicles and Fuels at the SAE World Congress in Detroit. I attended that discussion along with several others and wanted to share my own thoughts on it. One consistent theme amongst most of the car-maker representatives on the various panels was that there is no silver bullet that will solve the problems we face. Our future will include a diverse array of fuels and energy sources and drive systems, although the consensus seemed to be that the drive systems will migrate toward electrification.

The notable exception to this seemed to be BMW. In spite of their involvement in both the two-mode and mild hybrid systems with DaimlerChrysler and GM, they seemed to be lukewarm to hybrids. Given the actual real world benefits of parallel hybrids, this may not actually be such a bad position. Instead, short term, they seem more interested in start-stop systems and electrification of accessory drives combined with some limited regen braking capability. These systems are being introduced this year on the 1, 3 and 5 series models. The full hybrid systems won't be coming for another 2-3 years at the earliest.

Continue reading after the jump.
BMW has already committed to bringing their diesel engines to the US market by next year in at least the X5 and the 5-series. Presumably it will be biodiesel-compatible as all other modern diesels are. BMW has not really said much of anything publicly about ethanol even for their new turbocharged engines. From a performance perspective, which seems to be BMW's priority, the turbos could definitely benefit from ethanol's higher octane, but the Munich company seems to have no interest in that fuel. Again this may not be such a bad thing at least with current ethanol production methods which consume a lot of food crops and water.

Now on the subject of hydrogen, Christoph Huss did extol the virtues of hydrogen as a fuel. Leaving aside for the moment the whole question of whether hydrogen will ever be a viable energy carrier, there are other problems with BMW's stance. BMW is focusing on internal combustion engines fueled by liquid hydrogen. Again here BMW diverges from most other car-makers. Ford has a side project with hydrogen fueled shuttle buses that they are supplying to some airports for moving people around and Mazda has an ongoing development project with Wankel rotary in the RX-8 fueled by hydrogen.

Ford's main hydrogen focus is on fuel cells, particularly the series hybrid configuration they showed in the Airstream concept and the HySeries Edge that garnered some unfortunate attention recently. Ford, Mazda and everyone else working with hydrogen are all using gaseous hydrogen right now with research being done on solid state hydrogen storage. BMW is alone using liquid hydrogen. I asked the question of Dr. Huss why they were using liquid instead of gaseous hydrogen and his response was that liquid had twice the energy density of gaseous hydrogen. The problem is that liquid has to be stored in cryogenic tanks to keep it in liquid form.

Even with all the insulation, it still boils off and has to be vented from the tank. BMW has acknowledged that a tank of fuel in the Hydrogen 7 will boil off in about a week, meaning that if you fill one up and park it for a week it will be almost empty when you come back to it. This alone seems like a good reason not to bother. BMW has not indicated any interest in either gaseous hydrogen, which does not have this problem, or fuel cells.

The lack of interest in fuel cells may be related to the fact that BMW seems to have no interest in electric drivetrains. The German carmaker is apparently only interested in various internal combustion engines as the driving the wheels, perhaps with some electric assist, but nothing akin to a Chevy Volt, Ford Airstream or Tesla Roadster. While I enjoy driving BMWs, I think their single-mindedness on this subject is a mistake. Instead of creating still more vehicles in more market niches, BMW might want to consider refocusing their resources on other options. Even if hydrogen does become viable, I sincerely doubt that BMW's approach will be a winner.

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