GM Bringing Fuel Cells Home



Power to the people. Hydrogen power, that is.

Starting in January, General Motors will begin to deliver the first of 100 road-ready fuel cell vehicles, to motorists in California, New York and Washington, D.C. Equal parts public relations and research program, Project Driveway will give “thousands” of average Americans the chance to test drive what many see as the clean and green fuel of the future, explains one GM executive.


That includes countless employees of the Walt Disney Company, which has agreed to use some of GM’s new fuel cell vehicles to shuttle employees and talent at the entertainment company’s facilities inSouthern California.


Based on the familiar Chevrolet Equinox crossover, the hydrogen-powered prototypes will be loaned to drivers like David Shelton, an IT manager from Irvine, Calif. , who’ve gone through a rigorous online screening process. Each will get one of the hydrogen-powered crossovers at no charge for three months.


“I was delighted to be selected,” said the 45-year-old Shelton . Long been fascinated by alternative powertrain technology, he already owns an electric-powered version of Toyota ’s RAV4 SUV. Shelton admitted being “skeptical” about hydrogen power, but now sees it as an important first step” in breaking the nation’s addiction to petroleum.


The process won’t be easy, stressed Mark Vann, the deployment manager for Project Driveway. While manufacturers like GM may be able to produce fuel-cell vehicles, like the Equinox, that doesn’t mean the technology is ready to take over from the time-tested internal combustion engine.


Fuel cell technology is still far more costly. There are a number of technical issues yet to overcome, such as the storage of lightweight hydrogen gas. And there’s no production and distribution network in place to rival the existing petroleum infrastructure. At even the most conservative estimate, setting up such a network would cost a minimum $15 billion and likely take several decades to roll out.


But automakers like GM believe that with support at both the grassroots and government level, switching to a so-called “hydrogen economy” is a real possibility. So they’re actively supporting test programs, like the one in place in California , where 60 percent of the fuel cell Equinoxes will be put into operation.


Hydrogen can be used as an alternative to petroleum in modified versions of conventional internal combustion engines. But fuel cells are a complete different technology, where hydrogen is forced through a mesh-like membrane coated with noble metals, such as platinum, rhodium, and palladium. These catalysts cause the gas to combine with oxygen in the air, creating both water vapor and a steady electric current that can be used to power a vehicle’s electric motors.


In the case of the fuel cell Equinox, the fuel cell “stack” produces 93 kilowatts of electricity, or about 126 horsepower, and 236 pound-feet of torque. Though the modified SUV weights 5000 pounds — about 500 more than a normal, gasoline powered Equinox — that’s enough to propel it from 0 – 60 in 12 seconds, and to reach a top speed of about 100 miles per hour.


Because electric motors reach maximum torque as soon as they start turning, the fuel-cell Equinox feels much quicker than the numbers might suggest. Meanwhile, GM engineers have paid a lot of attention to drivability, making the car feel far more nimble than one might expect. Despite its weight, a test drive by found its handling nimble and smooth, with its electric steering system surprisingly linear and responsive.


While early fuel-cell vehicles had a limited operating range, the Equinox can operate in a much wider range of conditions, down to as low as 5 degrees and as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit.


The modified Equinox won’t be confused with a run-of-the-mill crossover. It bears a number of stickers identifying it as a “petroleum free” “fuel cell vehicle.” Meanwhile, GM designers have added a number of subtle changes, including the four rear steam vents that replace a conventional Equinox’s tailpipe.


The 100 prototypes will yield about 160 miles range, roughly double earlier versions. To reach that number – which works out to the equivalent of 39 miles per gallon gasoline — GM adopted the latest in high-pressure storage technology. Three tanks, compressed to 10,000 psi, contain 4.2 kilograms of hydrogen.


The problem is that there are only a handful of sites that can deliver the gas at such high pressures, so to support the program, GM will set up a network of temporary hydrogen filling stations.


It will take about six to eight minutes to fill up the hydrogen tanks, a two-step process requiring the driver to connect both a fuel pipe and an electric data link. The latter system ensures that the tanks are properly filled to their limit. Eventually, the hardwired data link will be replaced, GM officials explained, by an infrared connection.


Shelton will be among the very first to receive a fuel cell Equinox. By autumn of next year, GM expects to field 100 of the vehicles in California, New York, and Washington , and according to Vann, “thousands” of drivers will cycle through the vehicles before the test program wraps up in mid 2011.


GM is by no means the only automaker experimenting with hydrogen powertrain technology. Virtually all major automakers, including Ford, Toyota , Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, are field-testing designs of their own. But while some makers hope to put the technology into production by early in the next decade, most experts believe hydrogen won’t see serious use for at least another couple decades.



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