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Hydrogen BMW driven

2006-11-13 19:05

BMW's Hydrogen 7 represents a significant step into the future of automobile development

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer BMW
Model Hydrogen 7
Engine 6-litre V12
Power 191kW
Torque 390Nm

Wilmer Muller

The ecology is becoming a hotter topic than ever before, with politicians, celebrities and even carmakers fuming about it, to the point where the only way forward is to go green

For example former US vice-president Al Gore's controversial new environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, urges world leaders and opinion makers that action is needed to save the planet as humanity is sitting on a time bomb.

While Gore's message is nothing new, it is a wake-up call that it is now or never to "go green".

Yes, it sounds like a cliché and there is a lot of hair splitting in green politics whether or not mankind is really responsible for global warming.

That said, car manufacturers are aware that global warming is a reality, and that they contribute quite a bit to it. However, in Gore's film he does give carmaker's credit for their research to produce environmentally-friendly vehicles.

They are eager to find solutions to offer green products. BMW is such a manufacturer and believes hydrogen-powered vehicles are the best alternative to fossil fuels.

In fact the German carmaker is so sure of its case that it just presented a hydrogen version of the 7 Series to the world media.

It is BMW's first virtually emission-free vehicle suitable for everyday use, and next year BMW is to lend 100 of the Hydrogen 7 to influential public figures in Europe.

What is it about

So how does it work?

The Hydrogen 7 is powered by a hydrogen combustion engine, which is based on BMW's 6-litre V12 unit. However, the clever boys at BMW re-engineered it to run on hydrogen and a 74-litre petrol tank.

There is a special tank in the boot which stores 8kg (about 170 litres) of liquid hydrogen at a temperature of -253 degrees Celsius.

The driver can switch between the two fuels by pressing a button on the steering wheel.

Because hydrogen doesn't produce as much energy as petrol, the V12 only kicks out 191 kW instead of 327 kW.

Therefore it takes the Hydrogen 7 a (relatively) laid-back 9.5 seconds to reach 100 km/h whereas the normal 760i does it in 5.3 seconds.

Fuel economy isn't too impressive yet. BMW says the hydrogen gives you a 200 km range, but on a test route on the outskirts of Berlin we found it to be a bit less, and 170 km is probably a more realistic figure. In petrol mode the estimated range is 500 km.

There is no obvious difference when you drive the Hydrogen 7 and it still feels like your typical luxury sedan. You can switch over to petrol at any stage and you will hardly notice any delay or change in driving behaviour.

This smooth transition is thanks to high-precision control technology regulating the engine to ensure identical power in both operating modes despite the different combustion qualities of the various fuels.

In Hydrogen mode the car emits nothing but water vapour, and BMW's plan for the future is to develop a vehicle that runs on hydrogen alone.

7 Series genes

At first glance the Hydrogen 7 looks like the conventional long-wheelbase 7 Series model.

The only obvious clues that there is something different about the green Beemer is a separate transparent hydrogen fuel tank filler flap and modifications to the rear bumper.

There is also a new high "powerdome" on the bonnet required to house the H2 injection valves.

Further indications of the car's green nature is "Hydrogen 7" branding on the rear bootlid and beneath the side indicators.

Another important feature is that several sections of the body are made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic and steel, a hybrid structure optimised for weight and with enhanced crash resistance.

The reasoning behind the carbon-fibre materials is to off-set the extra weight of the drivetrain and fuel supply system.

Feasible approach

At the Hydrogen 7 launch BMW bosses would not put a price on the car.

However, it can't be cheap if you take into account that a 760i has a price tag of about R1-million.

They also didn't say who the first "high profile" drivers of the Hydrogen 7 would be.

These celebrity drivers will sign a lease agreement of 6 months and it includes a "personal assistant" for the car and, at times where hydrogen fuelling stations and appropriate technicians are not in the area of use, mobile fuelling stations and a team of technicians will be made available.

BMW says with the launch of the 7 Hydrogen it is taking a practical and feasible approach to the future of motoring.

The Munich-based carmaker also believes the integration of hydrogen into the current production process of vehicles is the most efficient method to establish it as an alternative to conventional fuels.

Although it is still a couple of years (or even a decade or two away) before the public will be able to buy hydrogen-powered cars, the Hydrogen 7 is a showcase that the way we think about cars must change and that green power is the future.

However, the Hydrogen 7 proves that carmakers are serious about alternative energy supply forms, although there are still plenty of issues to deal with before cars such as the Hydrogen 7 will become a way of life.

Now it is up to governments and fuel companies to join the carmakers and opinion makers, such as Al Gore, in their efforts to go green.

Car manufacturers can't go it alone - they need help to provide the necessary logistics and operational requirements to set up the right infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations.

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