The German giant is looking to the fleet sector for orders to provide the initial impetus that will kick start the age of hydrogen.
It is the fuel many scientists believe will be the trump card in the battle to stabilise the world's climate.
BMW is putting massive resources into developing hydrogen power because it believes the fuel can be produced by wind or solar power with no knock-on pollution and will prove vehicle friendly.
The manufacturer's own vision of the future of hydrogen is an internal combustion engine that runs on the gas and will sound like a proper car, rather than the 'milk float' silence of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles.
Within four or five years, BMW will launch a 'bivalent' production 7-series - a car that runs on hydrogen and petrol - and the company claims this interim technology will be necessary until a nationwide network of hydrogen refuelling stations is established.
But in a classic case of chicken and egg, the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure will not develop until there is a significant volume of hydrogen-powered cars, and vice-versa, and it is here that BMW needs fleets.
Individual consumers are unlikely to spend upwards of £50,000 on a car like the bivalent 7-series, but BMW is hoping fleets, particularly local authorities, Governmental departments and firms looking to flag their green credentials, can absorb the risk to some extent.
Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, senior vice president, group marketing of BMW AG, is open about the fact that the company will be losing money on these high-tech, super-clean cars, but says this is not the point. It is a necessary step that has to be taken, and Kalbfell wants fleets to take it with him.
'Fleets are of major importance to our programme because they are able to push ahead with alternative power schemes and we need orders,' he said.
'Fleet owners, particularly those who can restrict their movements to a town perhaps, will lead the way with these technologies.'
Hydrogen gas is seen as the most likely fuel of the future
AT the end of last year the Government set out its strategy for alternatively-fuelled vehicles in a draft document called Powering Future Vehicles (PFV). The report examined the possibilities, strengths and weaknesses of each fuel, with the objective of 'supporting the shift to low carbon road transport'.
'The Government will make maximum use of new vehicles and fuels in its own vehicle fleets, and encourage other public authorities to do so,' it pledged. However, how hydrogen will be used in the future, in fuel cells or internal combustion engines, is clouded.
Speaking at the BMW CleanFuels conference, David Jamieson MP, Minister for Transport, said: 'I see the Powering Future Vehicles agenda as a kind of journey. And what we want is a low carbon destination, and low carbon along the way.
'And it's clear that hydrogen is likely to have a key role. Barring any new science out of the blue, hydrogen looks the most likely final destination, because of its potential to be the truly zero carbon, zero-emission fuel.'
The PFV document talks about the use of hydrogen and the internal combustion engine: 'The benefits are that it uses conventional vehicle technologies which are well understood, familiar and proven, while delivering reduced emissions. However, it is unlikely, given the inherent inefficiency of the internal combustion engine, to deliver such substantial emission reductions as a vehicle with a fuel cell powering an electric drivetrain.
'Some commentators believe that hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines will be a useful stepping stone to fuel cells - while others argue that hydrogen in the internal combustion engine is a regrettable diversion, potentially delaying the ultimate move to fuel cell vehicles.'
Jamieson recognises there are many opposing views on the dominant fuel of the future. He said: 'Powering Future Vehicles is not a detailed blueprint. It deliberately does not plot out the exact path of the low carbon future in the UK, because we don't believe that is either possible or sensible at this stage, when there are so many different technologies and fuels being worked on - hybrids, fuel cells, biofuels and, of course, hydrogen.
'No government, no company, can claim to know the detailed road ahead - which is clear from the diversity of industry views.'
But in order to keep an open mind on all fuels, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown made hydrogen fuels exempt from fuel duty for the foreseeable future in April's Budget. The Government needs to find a way of hitting its Kyoto and European Union agreements on carbon dioxide reductions, and the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution requires a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2050. With optimistic estimates suggesting mineral oil and natural gas supplies will run out in about 100 years, a transport system based on elements other than fossil fuels is essential.
Jamieson said: 'It is very clear to us that hydrogen has a key role in the journey to a low carbon economy.' BMW is the only major manufacturer throwing its weight behind the hydrogen internal combustion engine. Many of the other motoring powers, such as General Motors and Ford, are firmly behind hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. But BMW believes that its product is king, and drivers will still want to appreciate the character of a silky V8 or stirring straight six engine in the future.
Dr Helmut Panke, designated chairman of the board of management, BMW AG, said: 'Sustainable mobility is the greatest challenge for our industry: it is not sufficient any more just to market products which the customer finds attractive. We must maintain individual mobility without crude oil and safeguard it in the long term for future generations.
'We ventured along this completely new route in order to make it clear that sheer driving pleasure and responsibility for the environment are not incompatible opposites - on the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin.
'Sustainable business will only be possible if we succeed in launching sustainable products. The only difference is that in the future we will be using a different fuel, a cleaner fuel.'
However, having started testing cars with hydrogen power as far back as 1979, BMW is prepared to go it alone, as long as it is sure that governments around the world will back up its efforts and not leave it hanging out on its own. Hence the tour currently circling the globe, taking the message to key governments on all five continents.
Dr Panke added: 'BMW is prepared to heavily invest in hydrogen technologies, but the precondition has to be a strong political commitment to hydrogen. Further investments can only be justified when infrastructure solutions can be developed and stable political frameworks implemented.'
EUROPEAN car makers have made serious and significant commitments to reduce the average greenhouse gas emissions of new cars over the next few years.
Via the Association of the European Automobile Industry (ACEA), manufacturers have agreed to reduce the average carbon dioxide emissions of all new cars to 140g/km by 2008, a reduction of 25% from 1995 levels, and to achieve an average fuel consumption of six litres/100kms (about 50mpg).
BMW claims the levels cannot be met by technical additions like catalytic converters, but only by the use of low carbon or carbon- free fuels.
Hydrogen is the most common and lightest element in the universe. It is a component of water and all organic compounds, and is colourless and odourless. When hydrogen is burnt, steam is the only tailpipe emission. However, petrol and diesel have between four and five times the stored energy of hydrogen, which means that as a road fuel hydrogen has to be stored as a liquid to give a car an acceptable range.
The advantage of hydrogen, however, is that it is renewable and clean to produce. BMW believes solar energy will be the main producer for hydrogen: the sun bathes the continents of the world with enough energy each year to power all mankind's needs 10,000 times over - a solar panel field a third of the size of the Sahara desert would satisfy all the energy requirements of Europe and Africa.
Hydrogen can be stored in large quantities, in liquid or gaseous state. In liquid form, it is cooled to –253 degrees Celsius, giving it higher energy density per volume. It is this form which will power vehicles, stored in tanks developed by the space industry. It can now be transported in much the same fashion as petrol or diesel.
The BMW 745h has a 140-litre cryogenic fuel tank, which has been extensively crash tested, giving the car a range of 300 kms. Add in the bi-fuel petrol element, and the range increases by 650km.
The 4.4-litre, eight cylinder 184bhp engine reaches a maximum speed of 215kph, but will only do 16mpg when powered by hydrogen, and will cost more than £57,000 to buy. At least it appears robust, with prototype cars running for more than 100,000 miles without problems.
Professor Garel Rhys, director of the Centre for Autmotive Industry Research at Cardiff University, believes that the fleet of the future could well be hydrogen based, but there needs to be a clear consensus on which direction the industry should go in.
With modern petrol and diesel engines getting cleaner all the time, Rhys feels that liquefied petroleum gas and hybrid petrol-electric cars are red herrings, delaying development of proper alternatives.
He said: 'LPG - what's the point? It's coming from petrol. Should we be rushing down the road to LPG and biogas?
'And hybrids - there are two engines, so you have to effectively buy two cars and nobody wants that, only when we are given incentives.'
Rhys believes four main strategies must be adopted to move the motor industry forward towards a hydrogen future.
He said most alternative fuel programmes should be scrapped, and manufacturers should 'move quickly' to start using hydrogen in internal combustion engines, develop efficient production of hydrogen from non-fossil sources, such as solar powered refineries and wind, and improve methods for storing liquid hydrogen. At the same time, the continuation of development in fuel cells using hydrogen should continue as a step further than internal combustion engines, Rhys added.
The fuel producer
OIL giant BP believes hydrogen has a role to play in transportation, but stresses that a network of hydrogen refuelling stations needs firm commitment and companies working together.
David Baldry, group vice- president of BP, said: 'Hydrogen is not yet a commercial alternative within the transport sector. We need to work together.
'The widespread adoption of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles would help hydrogen compete with today's conventional fuels. However, one challenge we face is how to make hydrogen economical for the early adopters of these vehicles, who may have to bear a disproportionate share of the initial infrastructure investment.
'Governments too have a role to play in this introductory phase. Governments are best placed to ensure that hydrogen remains cost competitive with conventional fuels as part of a long-term strategy promoting vehicles and fuels with a reduced environmental burden across the full lifecycle.'