At SAE 2009, in the basement of Detroit's aging Cobo Center, I met Jon Bereisa, Director of GM's Fuel Cell Propulsion program. I had just completed a drive in one of the hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinox SUVs.
Automobile's Jamie Kitman drove one back when the vehicles were introduced (2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell)and while the vehicle that I drove wasn't much different from Kitman's sample (a fourth-generation fuel cell), General Motors and Bereisa's group are now refining the sixth-generation powertrain.
Bereisa told us some particulars about the Gen VI fuel cell, "Now we've got the size down to where it can fit into a compact car. It's much smaller than what you just drove. Plus we're using a lot less platinum in the fuel cell stack, so cost is down. But we're able to deliver more range - around 300 miles - because we've got more cells in the stack."
Many of the changes that Bereisa told us about come from engineering made at the molecular level. Bereisa said, "When we started the program, we bought many components from vendors, but now we've exhausted their technology, and we're having to pioneer advances on our own, and those advances are happening at the molecular level of engineering." There are approximately 650 people working on the Advanced Engineering & Technology Development team in the U.S., Germany, China, and South Korea.
The team has succeeded in decreasing the size and cost of the hydrogen powertrain by 50-percent in the last two years.
In terms of operation, there is a push to start button that turns on the fuel stack. Quiet buzzes and hums from relays, circuits and pumps sound unfamiliar, but moving the gear selector into Drive is natural enough. The Equinox accelerates mildly, and is said to have a 0-60 mph acceleration time of between 9-10 seconds. Driving on the streets and freeways of Detroit proved the figure.
Acceleration is strong from a standstill and adequate on the highway. The power delivery is linear, but not robust. All other aspects of the drive were similar to that of a 2008 Equinox, only quieter and more refined. The drive didn't feel like a science fair experiment, it was more like peeking into the future of transportation.
When asked about hydrogen as a practical fuel, Bereisa told us, "There's a lot more hydrogen production around than people think, so if the country wanted to move to a hydrogen economy, it could get done pretty quickly and with a lot less investment than we're already seeing in the current stimulus package."