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Today I got a chance to have a spin in the BMW Hydrogen 7. It’s one of only 20 of the hydrogen-powered cars in the world, so I was a little nervous that I might prang it, but luckily all went seamlessly. In fact, apart from a big “H2” in the middle of the dashboard (and a small button on the right of the steering wheel, which you can just about see in this picture) you wouldn’t know you were driving anything other than a regular BMW. As my co-pilot and BMW engineer Mario explained, the car runs on a dual-fuel system, which means it can process both regular gasoline and hydrogen (the button on the steering wheel allows a driver to choose; or the engine switches automatically when one tank is empty.) The lengthy engineering process involved adapting the regular 760Li’s 12-cylinder engine to work with both fuel sources – and to make room in the car for the bulky hydrogen tank, which holds 17.5 lbs of liquid hydrogen. As you can see in this other photo, the tank sits in the trunk – and thus halves the luggage space of a regular 7 series (though the back seat still looks pretty roomy).
Safety’s obviously an issue when discussing such a volatile element as hydrogen (yes, I went there, I brought up the Zeppelin). Five sensors are distributed throughout the car to detect escaping hydrogen. If that happens, the windows automatically open in order to let the gas, harmless in and of itself, out into the atmosphere – and the fuel supply is cut. The demonstration/test drive didn’t include filling up with hydrogen but apparently it’s a similar, slightly more high tech version of a regular outing at the pump. Filling up takes about eight minutes.
So when might hydrogen cars become a reality rather than a nice toy to wheel out at events such as TED? No firm answers as yet, though BMW points to a joint government/industry project in California which aims to set up the “Hydrogen Highway” by 2010. That’s a network of 150 – 200 hydrogen-equipped fuel stations. For now, given that even the limited production run that will roll out of BMW’s Bavarian plant later in the year will not be sold on the open market, it’s still just a (beautifully designed) toy.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.