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BMW X5-based i Hydrogen NEXT powertrain in testing ahead of 2022 launch

BMW is pushing on with its hydrogen fuel cell programme and is now testing its i Hydrogen NEXT powertrain in everyday conditions on European roads. In these, the most extensive real-world trials to date, the brand is hoping to establish the viability of FCEVs in terms of efficiency, reliability and driveability.

BMW’s i Hydrogen NEXT is based on the current X5, but has been heavily modified to cater for the zero emissions fuel cell powertrain. These real-world tests have only recently started and are designed to pave the way for BMW to produce the i Hydrogen NEXT in small numbers by late 2022.

At the centre of the field tests is getting all of the niggly things that no amount of lab or test track-based driving is likely to throw up. Fine-tuning software that controls driving functions and how drivers interact with them – down to less tangible things like the “characteristic driving pleasure of BMW models” – is being ironed out.

Thousands of miles of driving on the road, amongst traffic, also helps engineers to validate efficiency, safety, convenience and reliability. This is all on top of the extensive tests already undertaken on the fuel cell system, hydrogen tanks, performance buffer battery and central vehicle control unit which were completed in lab conditions.

The powertrain

BMW’s i Hydrogen NEXT powertrain has been in development in cooperation with fellow leaders in the fuel cell field, Toyota, in a partnership which was formed back in 2013. For example, the individual cells come from the Japanese brand, while the fuel cell stack and drive system have been developed by BMW. 

The powertrain was revealed last March, and combines the fuel cell system, which produces electricity using the on-board hydrogen, with BMW’s latest fifth-generation eDrive technology. The fuel cell itself produces 168bhp, with an electric converter adjusting the voltage so that it can power the eDrive motor.

If you’re thinking that 168bhp isn’t all that much for a large SUV, the good news is that a performance buffer battery stores energy so that a maximum of 369bhp can be deployed in short periods – such as when overtaking. Energy is recovered into the buffer battery during braking, overrun and coasting.

BMW still committed to hydrogen

According to Frank Weber, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Development: “Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be an attractive option for sustainable drivetrains – especially in larger vehicle classes. That is why road testing of near-standard vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell drive train is an important milestone in our research and development efforts.”

This is all part of BMW’s Power of Choice strategy, within which it is pursuing all available avenues to ensure that it both meets its customers expectations and achieves its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. BMW has already committed to 25 electrified models by 2023, including full EVs and a wide-ranging offering of PHEVs.

Hydrogen is a part of this strategy – albeit a small one. BMW has admitted themselves that price parity for fuel cell cars is a long way off, and that’s before you look at infrastructure. However, adding another zero tailpipe emissions string to its bow simply means that the brand will be ready for however the future fuel mix pans out.

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