General Motors is investing in fuel cells, but major obstacles suggest that other alternative-energy technologies have a better chance of success
General Motors (GM) says it is determined to force fuel-cell vehicles past the chicken-or-the-egg stage, where they have been stuck for decades, with a goal of a small but commercially viable fuel-cell fleet by around 2015. Fuel cells run on hydrogen, producing electricity to run an electric motor. The only emission is pure water. But which comes first? Fuel-cell vehicles or the infrastructure to keep fuel-cell vehicles supplied with hydrogen fuel?
GM is tackling both in a modest way, in an effort called Project Driveway. "This is the first meaningful market test of fuel-cell vehicles," said Mark Vann, GM's program manager for fuel-cell activities, in a presentation in Tarrytown, N.Y., on Oct. 25.
A Different Sort of Test-Drive
Starting Jan. 1, GM is launching a test fleet of 100 fuel-cell-powered Chevy Equinox sport-utility vehicles, to be driven in part by ordinary consumers for free, keeping the vehicles for up to three months each, over the next 30 months. Consumers who live in the Los Angeles, New York, or Washington metro areas can sign up via Chevrolet's Web site.
Other automakers have made smaller test-fleet efforts, but with fewer fuel-cell cars and more tightly restricted groups of test-drivers. Like GM, most competitors use compressed, gaseous hydrogen. BMW (BMWG) is an exception, using supercold liquid hydrogen, which contains more energy in a given amount of space but is also more difficult to transport and handle.
To give the Project Driveway test-drivers a place to refuel, GM is installing four hydrogen fueling stations in the New York metro area, plus six more in the Los Angeles metro area. To put into perspective how little that is, there are approximately 170,000 regular filling stations across the U.S. GM's fuel-cell cars will require more frequent fill-ups than gas-powered cars, since the fuel-cell vehicles have a range of only about 150 miles on one fill-up. Instead of a regular gas tank, the GM vehicles have three hydrogen tanks, which resemble oversize scuba tanks, under the rear seat and in the rear cargo area.
Hydrogen Availability and Production Are Obstacles
Without delving too much into the science, the concept of a fuel cell is simple. Ordinary air, which contains oxygen, is blown across a thin, permeable film. Hydrogen is blown across the other side. Chemically, the oxygen and the hydrogen are a match made in heaven. The film acts as a catalyst: Two hydrogens combine with one oxygen each, thereby releasing an electron. The end products are electricity, pure water, and heat. Stack enough cells on top of each other, and you produce enough electricity to run an electric motor powerful enough to propel a car. Air is universally available and free. The hydrogen is the tough part.
The ordinary driver today has just about no access to hydrogen, despite its wide availability for commercial use. According to GM, 70% of the U.S. population lives near a hydrogen-generating facility. Often used in the production of ammonia-based fertilizers, most hydrogen is produced from natural gas, which raises another issue: If independence from fossil fuels is the ultimate goal of fuel-cell vehicles, hydrogen eventually will have to be produced using renewable power sources, such as wind or biomass.
"We trusted that by this stage, the infrastructure would be in place, and it's not. So we've decided to do it ourselves," said Britta Gross, GM's manager, hydrogen infrastructure.
Gross said the nation's only hydrogen filling station available to the public is owned by Shell Oil (RDSA), in Washington, D.C. Shell built the station in 2004, in a deal with GM to refuel an earlier fleet of six GM demonstration vehicles. It has a visitors' center to accommodate school field trips and President George W. Bush had a photo opportunity at the station in 2005, to observe a vehicle being refueled. Although it also offers ordinary gasoline, it could scarcely be considered an ordinary gas station.
I Brake for Fuel Cells
Although Project Driveway is much more than a simple market research study, Vann said GM will carefully collect feedback from test-drivers, especially with regard to driving impressions, likes and dislikes, and reactions from other motorists and passersby.
In a short test-drive, this reporter felt that the fuel-cell Equinox drove like an ordinary, internal-combustion vehicle, only normal operation is nearly silent, except for road noise from the tires and the sound of a compressor pushing outside air into the fuel-cell "stack." The fuel-cell car weighs about 400 pounds more than the internal-combustion vehicle, but the extra weight didn't have much effect on acceleration and handling in normal highway or city driving.
Braking did feel a little different, in that lightly applied brakes at speeds over about 30 mph did not have much immediate effect. Slowing the car required higher brake pressure. The fuel-cell Equinox has a high-voltage battery, but unlike a gas-electric hybrid, the battery is there to run other systems, like the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and not to propel the car.
But like a hybrid, applying the brakes in a fuel-cell car recaptures some energy from the wheels, to recharge the battery. That process is probably affecting the brake feel. "We're working on that," says Daniel O'Connell, GM's director of Global Field Service, Support & Infrastructure.
No Practical Battery for the Volt Yet
Complicating matters, the fuel-cell Equinox is strictly a rolling test bed for the fuel-cell power train and other features. GM is not planning to offer a fuel-cell Equinox in the foreseeable future, so that will limit the usefulness of consumer feedback specific to the Equinox.
In addition, GM has many other irons in the fire, in alternative-fuel vehicles, including flex-fuel vehicles that can run on a mixture of 85% ethanol and gasoline. In addition, GM in January unveiled the Chevrolet Volt concept car, a plug-in hybrid that runs off a battery that can be recharged by plugging it into the wall at home or office. It also has a small, conventional internal-combustion engine that can recharge the battery.
The bad news: Neither GM nor anyone else has a practical battery that will make the Volt feasible as proposed. GM said it hopes to have such a battery by 2010-12. In the meantime, as GM invests in several different technologies, it designed the Volt on its "E-flex" platform. The platform can accommodate either the plug-in hybrid or a fuel-cell drivetrain, Vann said.
Pursuing different strategies simultaneously makes sense, says Bill Pochiluk, president of consulting firm AutomotiveCompass in West Chester, Pa. "What GM is doing, really, is managing risk," he says. "It may look like it's slow, but it's working."