Before TreeHugger know-it-alls Mike and Matt came along with their more sophisticated understanding of these issues, I spent four years dissing the idea of hydrogen cars or the long-term sustainability of any kind of private vehicle when they need a petroleum powered infrastructure. Nevertheless when I was invited to drive a GM hydrogen fuelled, fuel cell powered electric SUV I couldn't pass it up, and engineer Dick Kauling's boyish enthusiasm for the subject was overwhelming.
I got to drive an Equinox crossover SUV built in Ingersoll, Ontario with a fourth-generation fuel cell built in an American GM plant. They have built a hundred of them, and are placing them with families across North America within range of hydrogen filling stations. The car can travel 320 km (200 miles) on a fillup; not exactly major expedition distance. I asked why they put this technology into an SUV when it is clearly meant for short-range use and it was the only time Dick winced, but quickly noted that the 5th generation fuel cell is half the size and twice the power.
I asked all the TreeHugger questions. "where is the infrastructure?" Dick said that hydrogen was being vented off from different industries all over America and could be collected. He talked of wind and solar and off-peak peak power that could be used to make it. He pointed out that the wind turbine ten minutes away from the test drive was producing hydrogen in a demonstration project. He said they were testing all kinds of technologies, and essentially agreed that the future was electric and we had to look at all ways to store that energy, whether it was batteries or hydrogen.
Dick explaining the car. We apologize for the occasional moving van and helicopter. 3:44 min
I asked "does it leak?" and he responded that after 30 days of sitting nobody would even detect a drop in hydrogen pressure, they have designed the tanks to hold the tiny molecule.
I even asked "OK, who killed the electric car?" and Dick responded that GM learned lots from the EV1, and that the car I was driving was a direct descendant of it, but that the original had lousy batteries and worse computer controls, and promised that these cars would not go to the crusher.
Dick explaining the infrastructure. 1:04 min
Driving it was interesting, I have rarely driven an SUV so I was more preoccupied by the feel of the car than the characteristics of the engine. However I asked if I could put the pedal to the metal and was impressed by the push back into the seat and watching the Kilowatt gauge go through the roof as I burned through the hydrogen.
Dick explaining the display. sorry about the sound. Not me at the wheel.
Is this the answer? I doubt it. It is the anti-Prius, they wanted to show that a normal family vehicle could be powered sustainably so they took the Equinox as the vessel to carry all this technology. I think they made the choice before SUV sales fell off the cliff, and I suspect that a car designed from the ground up to run this way will look very different. Are they serious about it? I don't know about General Motors, but Dick Kauling is, and I was impressed by his conviction.
After driving one, and after listening to Dick Kauling, I will not be so negative or dismissive about hydrogen again.
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