Fuel cell smackdown: Round 1 – Chevrolet Equinox

In searching for a replacement for the internal combustion engine, automakers have long viewed the fuel cell electric car as the ideal solution.  It is powered not by gasoline but by hydrogen, and it leaves behind no noxious emissions, only water vapor.

That prospect of green-motoring Nirvana has led the world’s most prominent automakers to wager hundreds of millions of dollars that the advance of technology would solve a few niggling problems in the way of commercial feasibility for fuel cells – notably cost, size, availability of fuel and access to refueling stations.

Lately those shortcomings have loomed larger while other alternatives like plug-in hybrids have grown in popularity, producing diminished expectations for fuel cell vehicles.  According to a recent survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, only two percent of all the cars sold in the U.S. are expected to be powered by fuel cells in 2020, compared with 15% for advanced diesel, 24% for hybrids and the majority by conventional engines.

But the dimming prospects for fuel cells hasn’t stopped General Motors (GM) from its announced determination to produce a saleable vehicle by 2010.  As a demonstration of its progress, it is making a fourth-generation test vehicle, a Chevy Equinox SUV laden with three hydrogen tanks, available for test drives. (A more advanced fifth-generation vehicle isn’t yet ready for prime time).

The two most important things to know about the Equinox are: One, it drives nicely – like a more expensive conventional vehicle – and two, it only goes 170 miles before it runs out of hydrogen. Number two looms really large.  Should your supply of hydrogen expire, you can’t just grab an empty gas can and head to the nearest service station.  Refilling a hydrogen tank to 10,000-pounds-per-square-inch pressure requires special equipment and supplies of hydrogen  that are available in only a handful of locations nationwide.

While earlier GM fuel cell vehicles featured controls lifted from the spaceship Enterprise, the Equinox is a  model of normalcy. No longer do you need a GM engineer in the passenger seat.  Turn the ignition key to the “on” position, wait a few seconds for the system to warm up, press the accelerator, and you’re off.

In the Equinox, your progress is stealthy – no engine noise – and swift – the electric motor requires no transmission  and hence there is no shifting of gears. To use a verb lifted from a Rolls-Royce brochure, you are wafted along.  A couple of differences: The brake pedal feels a bit stiff because it is less progressive and the hydrogen tanks eat up some storage space.

Keeping my eyes glued to the distance-to-empty gauge (which was thankfully more reliable than some others I’ve encountered),  I managed to motor back to New York City from the Berkshire Hills with some (hydrogen) gas still in the tank.  A gasoline- and emission-free car of the future that drives just like one you can buy today is a brilliant use of new technology.  But those more-than-niggling problems I mentioned at the outset mean there won’t be anything like the widespread use of fuel cell cars for a long time.

Next: Round Two – the Honda FCX Clarity

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