Blog: Dave LeggettGetting behind the (hydrogen) wheel

Dave Leggett | 23 May 2007

I was out in the Bedfordshire countryside yesterday, at Millbrook Proving Ground to be precise, for the annual motoring journalists' drive day event organised by the SMMT. It's always a useful day. There are plenty of manufacturers there offering journalists the chance to drive the products on either the hill route course (think hills and loops) or the speed bowl. It's also a good opportunity to see PRs and fellow scribes, chew the cud over lunch, get the latest gossip etc.

What impressed on the product front? Nissan Qashqai with 2-litre diesel engine is an interesting one. Car or SUV? What would the driving experience be like? It's definitely more car than SUV, but you sit just a little bit higher than you would in an ordinary saloon. It's very acceptable at speed around tight bends (good engine for the hills also). Nicely designed cabin. Nissan may well hit a sweet spot with this one.

But there was one vehicle there that had a significance way beyond the rest, I thought. 

I had to have a go in the hydrogen-powered BMW 7 Series and I did. BMW is running a small number of these as a PR exercise really - they are not intended for regular sale (the fuelling infrastructure is absent for one thing). BMW is loaning them to what it terms 'high-profile VIP users' for short periods of time so that they experience the ‘normality’ of emissions-free motoring. And they make appearances at events. (Go on BMW, give one to Jane Goody, please.) About seventy have been built in total so far, so getting your hands on one to drive isn't straightforward.

Liquid hydrogen at -250 degrees Celsius is fed into a modified Internal Cumbustion Engine (BMW still sticking with that hydrogen route rather than fuel cells). But it runs on petrol too (well, you'd be hard-pressed to find a liquid hydrogen filling station).

What was it like to drive? From a driving perspective, you couldn't tell it was running on hydrogen; there was a button on the steering wheel that enabled a seamless switch from hydrogen to petrol and vice versa. The fuel gauge showed petrol in litres and liquid hydrogen by weight in kgs, but apart from that - and the extra hydrogen tank taking up considerable space in the trunk - I could have been in a standard 7 Series.

So, there we are. I drove a hydrogen-powered car for the very first time. Not sure how I should mark the event (Rimmer from Red Dwarf had an 'H' on his forehead didn't he? - perhaps I should sport something like that for a couple of days). But listening to the wider debate about energy policy in Britain, the 'hydrogen economy' sounds a very long way off this morning. Good that vehicle makers are demonstrating that such advanced technology is really very close now, but the political problems ahead (like 'chicken and egg' on fuelling infrastructure, technical issues with fuel cells and the real biggie....renewable/nuclear versus non-renewable energy sources for primary power generation set against reduced greenhouse gas emission targets) remain very considerable.

Some pics below. Clockwise from top left: Nissan CashKey; Hydrogen 7; Mark Bursa is posing next to a 'reverse coke bottle kink' Citroen C4 Picasso; Hydrogen 7's hydrogen tank in the trunk - the bloke in the checked shirt is a freelancer who does stuff for the Independent newspaper.


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