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October 30, 2009

News & Features

Hydrogen holds on: Some automakers continue to see fuel cells in future green cars

Associated Press

Hydrogen fuel cells

Illustration by Andy Zapata

Even as automakers fast-track battery-powered electric and hybrid vehicles, a quiet push for hydrogen power continues.

General Motors announced last month that it had passed the 1-million-miles-driven mark in its fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox vehicles, with about 5,000 people rotating in and out of more than 100 cars over the past 25 months. Officials say having everyday people drive the test fleet of pollution-free cars has convinced them that they are on the right track in pursuing the technology.

"They'll tell you that after the first week, they pretty much forget it's a fuel-cell car, which indicates to us that we have accomplished our goal of making the fuel cell transparent to the consumer," says Daniel O'Connell, director of fuel-cell commercialization at GM's research and development offices in Honeoye Falls, near Rochester, N.Y.

Hydrogen projects
  • Toyota introduced a car powered by hydrogen and electricity last year and plans to introduce an improved hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle in 2015.
  • Daimler has spent nearly $2 billion and plans to spend an additional $700 million by 2011 for the commercial production of fuel-cell vehicles.
  • Honda has leased a small number of FCX Clarity vehicles in California to assess hydrogen's future.

Supporters see the fuel cell becoming a mainstream, eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-powered cars within the next decade. Fuel-cell cars are powered by electricity generated by a reaction between oxygen and hydrogen; the only emissions are wisps of water vapor.

"You put your hand over the exhaust pipe and the only thing coming out is water. That was such a cool feeling," says Mike Schwabl, a marketing executive who drove an Equinox for 10 days in western New York earlier this year. Other drivers tried cars in Washington, D.C., and Southern California.

The cars look and handle like any other, Schwabl says. "I would love to drive one of these vehicles [permanently]," he adds.

But numerous obstacles remain for GM and its competitors in the fuel-cell race. Auto companies do not disclose costs, but the vehicles are expensive to produce because most are hand-built prototypes. Also, the nation lacks a network of fueling stations.

However, supporters got a boost earlier this month when the Senate agreed to restore nearly $200 million for hydrogen car research that the Obama administration had proposed to cut.

And improving technology should allow the next cars to go farther than the current 168 miles per fill-up, O'Connell says. Until then, drivers have to keep a close eye on the fuel gauge to avoid drifting too far from one of about 70 fueling stations in the United States.

Chevrolet Equinox

The fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox. (General Motors)

Test driver Laurie DeRoller learned that the hard way, stalling out five miles short of the filling station in Honeoye Falls during a weekend drive in May. GM sent a flatbed to take it away.

The experience didn't change her mind about wanting to own one, she says, and she is confident that a hydrogen highway will eventually exist. Refueling the cars with compressed hydrogen takes about five to seven minutes in a process similar to putting gasoline in a traditional car.

"We've learned that the technology can be accepted by the consumer and that it is a viable means of powering our automobiles of the future," O'Connell says of the "Project Driveway" test.

He says the program will continue for four more months, and then the cars will be pulled off the road and upgraded with technology developed while they've been in use.

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