Le Mans rules have a special section for what are called Garage 56 cars — experimental prototypes that are not intyended to compete for top honors but rather to test out new technology. According to Motor Authority, there are rumors that a BMW fuel cell race car may be in the works. If so, it will compete in the Garage 56 category in 2018. BMW has not been to Le Mans since 1999, when its V-12 LMR took the overall victory at the grueling annual endurance race.

BMW is known to be interested in fuel cell technology and is partnering with Toyota to research building a fuel cell powered car, perhaps for 2020. Toyota has just introduced its own fuel cell sedan, the Mirai, in Japan. Sales in the US will begin this fall. Not everyone is fully convinced that electric cars will be the wave of the future, at least not until battery prices come down significantly. BMW wants to be able to build whatever kinds of cars the market wants, whether electric, plug in hybrid or fuel cell. If someone comes up with a new technology, BMW will investigate that as well.

Fuel cell cars are like battery electric cars, except the fuel cells take the place of the battery. The only “waste products” from a fuel cell are water vapor and heat. But unfortunately, there are almost no hydrogen refueling stations anywhere in the world outside of southern California.

Right now, it takes more energy to make the hydrogen needed for a fuel cell car than the energy contained in the hydrogen itself. In the US, commercial grade hydrogen usually is derived from natural gas, which is obtained by fracking. Despite the drawbacks, Toyota has made a huge commitment to fuel cell cars going forward. Honda is also working on a new fuel cell car and Hyundai sells a fuel cell version of its Tucson in selected markets.

BMW has not competed in top level motor sports since it withdrew from Formula One at the end of the 2009 season. It is said that racing helps sell cars, but BMW’s sales have exploded since it stopped racing. That’s why a limited effort in the Garage 56 rules makes sense for the company. It will allow them to showcase their engineering talent without committing to a long and expensive full fledged racing effort.