Monday, November 05, 2007

Fuel Cell Test Drive - Part I

Last Friday, along with several members of the press and a few other bloggers, I had an opportunity to drive GM's latest hydrogen vehicle, the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell. This took place as part of GM's Project Driveway rollout, which will put 100 fuel cell cars in the hands of selected consumers (apply here.) The session in D.C. included an extensive briefing by GM's fuel cell team on the corporation's advanced technology vehicle strategy, the safety and design aspects of the Equinox FC, and its associated hydrogen refueling infrastructure. I couldn't possibly do justice to all this in a single posting, so today I'll focus on the fun part--driving a fuel cell car--and return to the larger strategic and policy implications tomorrow.

(Photos courtesy of GM.)

Even though I've been following the development of advanced technology vehicles pretty closely for ten years, as part of my broader focus on alternative energy and its environmental implications, I must admit that I was surprised at how normal the Equinox FC seemed. Nothing about it suggests a limited-production prototype. In appearance, trim and handling it looks and feels like a real car, rather than a test-bed for a highly efficient but very costly new propulsion system. Other than the animated fuel cell schematic on the dash and a power output gauge where you'd expect to find a tachometer--and the absence of a tailpipe--you'd be forgiven for not noticing that it isn't just another well-appointed example of the car-based SUVs that have become increasingly popular in the last few years.

How did it drive? Well, anyone who has never driven an electric car or a hybrid--which the Equinox FC is, too--might think that the equivalent 125 horsepower of the Equinox's 93 kW fuel cell stack wouldn't be adequate to deliver acceptable acceleration. After experiencing the EV-1 a decade ago, I knew to expect the electric motor's kick, with its instant torque. The car performed well on our loop around downtown Washington, DC, including a short hop onto I-395 towards Crystal City. It wasn't as eerily quiet as the EV-1; between the air compressor and H2 injectors, I might have guessed the car was powered by a big, refined V-6.

Naturally, there were a few other reminders that this wasn't a regular car. Because the Equinox FC employs regenerative braking, like other hybrids its brakes feel a bit stiff and unresponsive. Hybrid owners tell me they get used to this very quickly. Even when compressed at 10,000 psi, H2 takes up more room than its equivalent in gasoline or diesel. The hump in the cargo area behind the back seat--which would certainly complicate loading the car up for a family trip--isn't the only reminder of this fact. Even at an effective 43 miles per gallon, the maximum H2 capacity of 4.2 kg on board is only enough for about 150 miles, and H2 refueling stations are as rare as hen's teeth. (More on that subject tomorrow.)

I don't test drive cars very often, and the Equinox--fuel cell or otherwise--is quite different from my normal ride. I've never owned an SUV or mini-van, and the standard Equinox and its competitors weren't on my short list the last time I went car-shopping. So while my test drive didn't impart a desperate urge to own an Equinox FC, that's more of a knock on a car class that doesn't hold much appeal for me, than on this particular vehicle. At the same time, I think GM made a wise choice of the Equinox as a fuel cell platform, leveraging the standard model's 5-star crash rating to allay some of the safety concerns that hydrogen still raises, and put this technology in a package that most Americans would find similar enough to the cars they own to make them immediately comfortable.

So, on balance, count me as favorably impressed with the Equinox Fuel Cell. What's under the hood may be rocket science, but the car itself isn't. While that might disappoint some of us alternative energy "gear-heads", it's a useful reminder that no advanced technology vehicle will ever become a mass-market success, unless it incorporates the best marketing--as well as engineering--thinking. Tomorrow's posting will look at the energy and environmental implications of mass-producing a fuel cell vehicle such as this one.

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