BUSINESS 2.0:

Steering for Tomorrow

It'll be years before you can fill up on hydrogen at your local Gas N Go. But in the meantime, BMW is offering a luxurious V-12 preview of our carbon-free future.

By John Tayman, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- "It's the car of the future that you can drive today!" says the BMW executive delivering to me a Hydrogen 7, the first hydrogen-powered luxury vehicle in the world. Or, rather, I could drive it today, if he hadn't just run over a nail, now embedded nastily in the sidewall of the H-7's left rear tire.

BMW (Charts) has spent three decades and untold millions - literally untold, since the company won't tell me - creating one of the most advanced vehicles in the world, only to have it hobbled by a 10-penny nail.

Need I note the irony? Probably not.

Also, that would be cruel, since the noble goal of the H-7 is, at heart, to save the earth. Petroleum-fueled vehicles pump more than 10 billion metric tons of carbon into our ever-warming atmosphere each year, and the H-7 represents a baby step toward reducing that figure.

Unlike fuel-cell vehicles in development by Ford (Charts) and GM (Charts), which use compressed hydrogen gas to charge batteries that then power electric motors, the H-7 employs a combustion engine modified to burn gasoline and hydrogen. This bi-fuel approach is, in part, simply practical: There are just three hydrogen filling stations in the United States, and BMW wanted to create a car that could serve as a transitional vehicle while the nation builds a hydrogen infrastructure, something experts say will exist by 2027. (The company is working on a hydrogen-only version of the H-7, for those happy days.)

In the near term, however, BMW will dispatch refueling tankers to top off the 25 H-7s slated for U.S. release this year. This is less a sound business decision than a sort of environmental outreach program, of which the H-7 is the shiniest component. The automaker intends to lend the cars to hydrogen evangelists - people with enough influence or fame to effectively sell skittish Americans on the notion of hydrogen as an energy source.

This can be a tough transaction. To wit: About 18 pounds of the stuff is currently tucked behind the backseat of my test H-7, ominously percolating in the warm San Francisco sun.

Hydrogen is a volatile, occasionally unstable fuel, which is why BMW forbids the car to be parked in closed garages (lest gaseous vapors pool and ignite), and why, during testing, luckless fuel tanks were set ablaze and shot full of bullets in attempts to ignite the H. Hydrogen, the company concluded, is actually safer than gasoline - and any hand-wringing over the H-7 is wrongheaded. As Andreas Klugescheid, the BMW executive, says, "It's not the Hindenburg."

He's right, of course: That German conveyance carried 97 passengers, while the H-7 seats but four. Also, the zeppelin was filled with hydrogen gas, whereas the H-7 uses the liquid form, which is kept at minus 423 degrees in a thermos-like double-walled stainless-steel vacuum tank that provides the insulating equivalent of 56 feet of Styrofoam. (Your morning cup of coffee would remain hot in the tank for 80 days.)

The H-7's array of NASA-style sensors monitor its tanks, fuel lines, and interior for leaks, and should a breach be detected, the car kills the engine and swiftly vents the gas. Nevertheless, I do notice a fire extinguisher beneath the car's front passenger seat - a somewhat unsettling accessory.

The future is not for the timid, however.

I decide to take the H-7 for a spin, blowouts be damned. Basically, this is akin to driving a plain-vanilla 760Li. The H-7 is outwardly a clone of BMW's flagship sedan, with only a slightly higher hood line and an extra fuel valve to provide clues to the car's special nature. (Well, that and the enormous "Clean Energy: Hydrogen" decals affixed to its sides.)

The interior is almost identical, the most noteworthy difference - excluding the extinguisher - being a button on the steering wheel labeled "H." Press it and the H-7's engine seamlessly switches from gas to hydrogen, or vice versa. The engineering that allows each fuel to independently share a single V-12 combustion engine is impressive and daunting, and beyond the ken of the typical car columnist.

Let's just say that BMW seems to have it all well in hand. The H-7 can do 143 mph, has a range of 435 miles (310 using gas, another 125 using hydrogen), and, when in H mode, emits virtually no carbon dioxide. Its twin tailpipes blow water vapor, which, should you choose to taste it, contains the merest hint of savory aluminum.

And although the engine is a bit noisier in hydrogen mode, there's no real performance difference between gas and H. (Because hydrogen has a slightly lower energy density than gasoline, BMW "detuned" the V-12 to 260 hp, to better match the fuels.) Punch the throttle in either mode and the car rockets right away. And indeed, if not for its use of a virtually unlimited, potentially renewable, nonpolluting energy source, the H-7 would be just another well-executed German luxury performance saloon. Or, as Klugescheid says, "It's a completely unspectacular spectacular car."

Like every German, he's too modest. I spend the afternoon touring the hills north of the city, skirting a stand of ancient redwoods and lacing through fingers of coastal fog, and to do so in a hydrogen ride feels absurdly altruistic.

Such self-satis-faction lasts until, pulling into my drive, I realize that the H-7 is low on H, with the nearest hydrogen station some six hours away - assuming the punctured sidewall holds. Hopping out to check the tire, I kneel at the car's fender, breathing gentle puffs of steam. Klugescheid approaches and begins to study the nail, while I become lost in a what-if moment of ecological reverie.

Just then he speaks. "Maybe," he says, hesitantly, "we should leave well enough alone."

"Actually," I reply, "maybe we shouldn't."

John Tayman, a contributing writer for Business 2.0, is the author of "The Colony" (http://www.johntayman.com/).

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.