Hydrogen-Powered Luxury

by Nelson Harvey

 

Geeking out on cars is not generally my thing, but it was yesterday, as I got a chance to test drive BMW’s prototype “Hydrogen 7,” a luxury sedan fueled by liquid hydrogen and gasoline. The car is being shown off as part of a TED climate forum taking place this week in New York, and it’s one of only a few hundred that the company has produced so far.

It seems that part of BMW’s goal in promoting this unusual car is to convince the public that it’s not so unusual, or that, in the words of one press release, “changing over to an alternative form of energy doesn’t mean missing out on superior driving dynamics and comfort.” While most other car companies interested in hydrogen are developing fuel cell technology, BMW is sticking with the same old combustion engine. Unlike a fuel cell, which generates electricity to drive the car, the powertrain on the Hydrogen 7 consists of a “manifold injection system” which compresses and combusts both liquid hydrogen and gasoline. Depending on fuel supply, the driver can switch between the two fuels with the touch of a button on the steering wheel. Driving around Washington Square park at fairly low speed, there was little more than a faint woosh sound when I put the car in hydrogen mode.

The Hydrogen button is on the steering wheel, on the lower right side.

Fellow manufacturers and many in the media aren’t so sure why BMW is betting on a combustion engine. After all, the Hydrogen 7 gets only 18 miles to the gallon between its two fuel systems, while many fuel cells running on highly pressurized hydrogen gas can get 60 mpg or better. And although the risk of explosion in the event of an accident is lower than with highly pressurized gas, keeping the liquid hydrogen at the requisite -423 degrees requires a lot of energy to begin with, plus a highly engineered aluminum tank and lots of heavy insulation.

Certainly, BMW should be recognized for its innovative engineering, and for working to solve the “chicken and egg” problem of hydrogen vehicles and fueling stations (producing one without the other is a high-risk proposition for companies, and this has slowed development of the technology). However, there is a deeper issue at stake here.

In producing a car like the Hydrogen 7, BMW is greening a status good; a product that people purchase not because they need it in the basic sense, but because they believe it will advance their social standing in relation to others. Therein, of course, lies the problem. For many people, status (and therefore self-worth) is bound up with the procurement and consumption of material goods. Understandably, people will always try to maintain a healthy sense of self esteem, but when doing so depends on consumption of things like automobiles, this urge becomes environmentally dangerous.

I’ll stop short of proposing that no one should own luxury cars. Its fun and exciting to push the envelope the way BMW does with automotive technology. And given our infrastructure in the U.S., many people will certainly need cars for the foreseeable future. But lets hope that this boutique example of environmental innovation will trickle down into the automotive sector as a whole, so that more people than just Brad Pitt can enjoy the fruits of hydrogen technology.

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