BMW's Hydrogen Boondoggle

Yesterday, ultimate driving-machine maker BMW (OTC BB: BAMXF.PK) announced to the world that it intends to conduct the first commercial-scale production run of a hydrogen-fueled car beginning in April 2007.

"Hurray! The Hydrogen Revolution is here at last!"

Not so fast, Tex. Read that first paragraph again, and key in on the words "hydrogen-fueled." Notice that you didn't see the words "fuel cell" anywhere in BMW's announcement. And the reason there's no mention of fuel cells in the statement, is because there won't be any fuel cells in the cars. No, the "Hydrogen 7" (so called because it will be based on the firm's "7 Series" sedan) won't be the car of the future that we've all been waiting for, the one that finally puts a stake in the heart of the internal combustion engine by replacing it with clean, proton-exchange-originated electric power yielding only water as a byproduct.

Rather, BMW's offering is a sort of half-measure -- more a PR stunt, really, than an effort to prove that hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles have come of age. Witness the fact that the vehicles will carry two fuels simultaneously: liquefied hydrogen gas, and the other kind of gas. And both of them will be transformed into energy through good old-fashioned combustion. In further illustration of this, BMW says it will lease the 100 or so hydrogen-burners it builds to a select few individuals who "have a potential impact on making a hydrogen economy happen." Translation: Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher, and a few other people who were first in line to buy a Prius.

So why is BMW picking and choosing who gets the vehicles? Why doesn't it just slap a sticker price on 'em and move 'em out the door en masse? Well, because of the size of the sticker, for one thing. According to automotive rival Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , which addressed the subject last year, in order to break even on a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle, the cars would have to be priced at roughly $1 million -- though Toyota intends to get that price down to $50K or so over the next 10 years. One suspects that BMW's hydrogen-burners would induce a similar case of sticker shock if placed on the open market.

So let's see: You can't buy one. And even if you could, you couldn't, because it costs too much. What else is great about this car? How about the fact that it can only go about one-third as far on the contents of its hydrogen gas tank, as the "real" gas tank will take it. (By the way: Kudos! Great way to show people how superior hydrogen is to fossil fuels, guys.)

Sequel as epilogue
Before you give up entirely on hydrogen fuel cells, though, do remember that progress is being made. Last year, Canadian fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power (Nasdaq: BLDP  ) promised to "demonstrate the commercial viability of automotive fuel cell stack technology by 2010," and automakers General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) and DaimlerChrysler (NYSE: DCX  ) announced partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce as many as 140 fuel-cell vehicles. Speaking of which, GM just announced that it has developed a workable fuel-cell-powered SUV called the Sequel. More on that one as we learn more.

Read more about the (always) coming (never here) Hydrogen Revolution in:

BMW is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorpick -- and beating the S&P 21% to 16% since its recommendation, by the way. For more superstar picks from Tom and David Gardner, try a subscription on for size, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company named above. The Fool's disclosure policy is a real revolution.

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